Less than a Manifesto

A Muslim is ‘one who submits’ – Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is called Submission, and it describes the Islamization of France in the near future. A self-aware novelist, Houellebecq makes clear his particular, peculiar understanding of Islam. The title in French is Soumission, and the straightforward translation to the English equivalent is obvious, but ‘soumission’ has a secondary meaning in English, and probably in French too: submissiveness. There’s a fine difference. Authors often pick titles which use secondary meanings to suggest another way of interpreting the novel, a deeper level of intent.

SubmissionOn page 217 Houellebecq describes what he thinks the real meaning of Islam might be. The narrator of the novel is François, a middle-aged university lecturer, who is having the new French world explained to him. Houellebecq puts the words into the mouth of one Robert Rediger, a charismatic French academic who has reacted opportunistically to the democratic rise to power of an Islamic régime in France. Rediger has joined the new government and converted with alacrity to Islam. With several young female students, he has quickly caught on to the attractions of polygamy. He and his multiple wives now live in a sumptuous house in rue des Arènes, in the 5th arrondisement of Paris, the same house, apparently, where Anne Declos wrote the novel of female sexual submissiveness, Story of O. Through Rediger, Houllebecq makes a link so crass that it is momentarily stunning. Rediger explains to François:

‘… there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man, as it’s described in Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.’

Houllebecq is notorious for causing offence and presumably saw this political satire as an affront to the French bourgeoisie – it seems more likely that the elders of Islam are going to be upset by a comparison of their faith with Anne Declos’s graphically described novel of male sexual dominance.

Houellebecq is confusing the trappings of Islamic culture with the tenets of Islamic faith, a fundamental error made by many Islamophobes in the West, but the consequences of that are his problem. I’m more concerned with his novel.

There are superficial similarities with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, few of them flattering. Rediger, for instance, fulfils roughly the same sort of role here as O’Brien in Orwell’s novel: he is the party insider, who explains and defines the new and authoritarian régime to François, the book’s narrator. His function is first to explain to François where he has gone wrong, then to offer him salvation. Rediger’s passages of explanation are maddeningly dull – they seem to be based on political party handouts, or newspaper articles, or debates on TV current affairs shows.

Rediger has no literary function beyond exposition, which is why the apparent similarity to Orwell is a trite one: O’Brien was a false-flag operative, luring Winston Smith into a feeling of trust before betraying him, a crucial and memorable sequence which Orwell used as an illustration of the ruthlessness of the Big Brother régime. Houllebecq lacks that kind of subtlety, or any sense of drama. Rediger finishes his explanation and François now is ready to convert to Islam, presumably much taken with the idea of a new beard and some polygamy with his young students. In his own way he too is now loving Big Brother.

Houellebecq has hardly any story to tell: a presidential election in France in 2022 leads first to an inconclusive result, then after the run-off a Muslim politician called Ben Abbes, leader of the so-called Muslim Brotherhood (but not the same one as in Egypt), forms a government. Almost overnight the constitutionally secular French Republic is transformed into an Islamic nation, rather along the model of Saudi Arabia. All women wear veils in public, alcohol is banned, universities are closed, beards are grown, Shariah is introduced.

François has a job at a university, but loses his job at the university. For a while the novel feels like a watered-wine version of The Day of the Triffids – the old order is breaking down and survival is imperative! Riots on the streets of Paris! Shortages in shops! Time to get away from civilization! François jumps into his car and drives out of Paris in his powerful VW Touareg – ‘a turbo-diesel V8 and 4.2 common rail direct fuel injection, it could go 240 kilometres per hour’. He thus speeds down ‘strangely empty’ motorways while everything in the country seems to be ‘broken’. He finds a hotel in Martel (TV not working, no food), then a more congenial one in the Christian shrine village of Rocamadour. He settles down comfortably and spends a lot of time sitting in a church (this is where we and Houellebecq part company from Triffids). After a return to Paris, where the riots appear to be over, or more likely forgotten, he leaps on a TGV (SNCF still working OK) and escapes to become an oblate at a monastery, returns to Paris, listens to Rediger explaining and explaining …

A secondary theme in the novel is François’s interest in the 19th century novelist J.-K. Huysmans, who was the subject of his dissertation years before. Huysmans worked as a civil servant for many years, and was noted for his pessimism and interest in the decadent movement. He became a religious convert after he spent time as an oblate in a monastery. This is the same monastery at Ligugé that François flees to. What sort of point is Houellebecq making here? Are we being invited to see a parallel between François and Huysmans? So it would seem, but Houellebecq’s infilling about him is sketchy to say the least. The thinness of the connection looks perilously like a bit of sophistry, a factitious attempt to give some kind of literary extra meaning to his otherwise uninteresting story.

Speculation about the near future seems these days to be increasingly attractive to writers who would otherwise disdain the idea of writing what they appear to presume is trashy genre science fiction. Houellebecq is just the latest and by no means the worst … but he’s close to the worst. The point is that the literary requirements of all fiction remain necessary when writing speculative or fantastic fiction.

In the first place, a metaphorical level is required: the basic theme of the novel (in this case the Islamization of France) needs poetic irony and resonance: a sense of place, or dread, or rationalism, or humour, or distance, or invention. If you write as Houellebecq has written here – spouting the knee-jerk fears of the tabloid press, or the homilies of ambitious politicians, or the sonorities of newspaper leader writers – then you end up at best with a sort of manifesto. But if you fall below that best, as Houellebecq does in Submission, you do little more than rehash clichés and generalizations and ignorant assumptions and political gobbledegook. Islamophobia is already familiar to us, the daily stuff of headlines, politics and journalism. And in a novel even metaphorical content is not enough on its own: a novel of course requires characters, a mood, a sense of place, a love of language, a story, a plot, a reason for the book to exist that is greater and more lasting than the passing fears of the moment. Houllebecq delivers none of these novelistic qualities, but at least his book is short and soon over. The translation, by Lorin Stein, is well done.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq – William Heinemann, 250 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1-78-515024-1

Livres de la jungle

There is a library in the jungle. It is a small building which has become a focal point of calm and order in the chaos of the waste ground near Calais where thousands of people are being forced to camp out. It has books, art materials, facilities for teaching children and also for them to play. As winter approaches there are plans to put in extra lighting and heating.

Jungle BooksMary Jones, a British resident in Calais, has worked with the migrants to build and equip this symbol of the quiet values. In the worsening human crisis, which the authorities seem incapable of coping with, the ramshackle, temporary building is a practical refuge but also an expression of hope for the future.

Mary Jones is seeking crowdfunding of £10,000 by 24th September. This is by most standards a modest amount, but it would enable her to buy generators, cooking kits, groundsheets, etc. She also wants to get hold of four or five laptops for the school, and for people anxious to make contact with their families through Skype. Within the first few days she has raised just under £1,000.

More details here. Do it now?

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.

Abattoirs, Rickshaws, Haunted Dreamers and The City

This is not a review of a novel so much as a recommendation of one – the best new novel I have read this year is Sam Thompson’s Communion Town. It is a first novel of impressive skill and imaginative flair, ambitiously structured and beautifully written, described by the publisher as a city in ten chapters, which in fact sums it up admirably. The central city, which might be London, or Boston, or Tel Aviv, or Melbourne, grows slowly into vivid life as you read the stories of the various people who live there.

Each chapter is different in type and is written in a slightly different style. I shrink from using the word “pastiche”, preferring the idea of literary hommage, as I suspect Mr Thompson intended. Several writers are explicitly summoned, H. P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle among them, but to many readers there will be implied echoes of many more. I sensed the benign hovering presence of J. G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Bruno Schulz, Jorge Luis Borges, M. John Harrison, Iain Sinclair, even W. G. Sebald. Even so, Sam Thompson’s voice is his alone, and this is a major work. It is the sort of book that is so well written it makes you want to declaim passages aloud to the people around you, your nearest and dearest, pedestrians passing your house, other passengers sitting opposite you on the train, anyone will do – so great is the author’s style, so deep his range, so wonderful and rich are his images.

But this amazing young writer appears to have slipped below the radar. Although Communion Town was fairly widely reviewed, the general sense I gained from reading the reviews was that almost none of the critics appeared to understand it, even those who claimed to approve. Several of them referred to the novel as a collection of short stories, which it emphatically is not. The Sunday Times called it a “dreamt-up mish-mash”, the Daily Mail said it was “frustrating”, and the reviewer in the Oxford Times said, “I’ve no idea what it all means”. I hope Mr Thompson was not too discouraged by this sort of evasive and pusillanimous journalism.

Communion Town did make it to the Man Booker longlist, although these days that can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Hope briefly rose that for once a genuinely adventurous and challenging novel would rise to the surface of the literary millpond, but a few weeks later it sank out of sight when the shortlist was announced. The judges missed a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to the arrival of an astonishing new literary talent.

A similar opportunity remains, perhaps, for the judges of the Clarke Award to make amends, partly to make up for the omission by the Booker judges, but also to try to restore confidence in the Award after this year’s dismal effort. Here is a novel of pure slipstream, nothing like traditional science fiction, but an emphatic illustration of the recent argument that the heartland of science fiction writing has become irrelevant through exhaustion. Communion Town is from what Paul Kincaid describes as the borderland of SF, a book on the edge of the fantastic, a celebration of the nature of speculative images and allusive writing and subversive imagery.

Too much to hope that the science fiction world will embrace this novel? China Miéville, for one, has said he likes it and is quoted on the cover of the hardback: “Dreamlike, gnarly and present,” Miéville writes, “Communion Town shifts like a city walker, from street to street.” My dictionary defines “gnarly” as rough, twisted and weather-beaten in appearance; perverse or ill-tempered. I think Miéville probably intended it as a recommendation. I add mine too.

Communion Town is published by Fourth Estate, £14.99, 280 pp, ISBN: 978-0-00-745476-1

THE INNER MAN: The Life of J. G. Ballard – John Baxter (2011, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.00; ISBN: 978 02978 6352 6)

Biographies of great writers, thrown together too soon after their deaths, tend towards the condition of a first draft of a life. The availability of living witnesses willing and eager to be interviewed, friends with scrapbooks and snapshots, even important locations as yet unchanged by time, seem to be too tempting to be ignored. Recent examples of this rush to be the first include Eric Jacobs’ biography of Kingsley Amis and Norman Sherry’s of Graham Greene. Both of these were inferior jobs.

Now here is John Baxter’s biography of J. G. Ballard, in print only two years after Ballard’s death. Baxter has previously written biographies of people like George Lucas and Robert De Niro, which I have not seen, but the Ballard biography is probably his first of a writer, and the first of a major author of international repute. The book has presumably not been authorized by anyone, certainly not by Ballard’s daughter, Beatrice, who has accused Baxter of hurrying this book out to make a quick buck, saying she had filled six pages with Baxter’s errors of fact.

Baxter claims to be Ballard’s literary contemporary, presumably as a justification for his rush to write this book. Technically, he’s correct: I well remember a number of stories by John Baxter in the Nova Publications New Worlds. At the end of 1962 I had discovered that J. G. Ballard was a frequent contributor to New Worlds so I started buying it regularly. What I soon realized was that with the exception of Ballard’s brilliant early work, and a few good stories by Brian Aldiss, the pages of New Worlds in the early 1960s were filled with mediocre work, mostly concerned with Earthmen solving puzzles on alien planets. Baxter’s stories were typical of this kind of thing, written in pedestrian prose and using familiar plots. The antithesis of Ballard’s stories, in fact. I feel a keen sense of anger at this faux modest attempt to present himself as some kind of equal. To be fair, Baxter’s writing style in this book is not as bad as his turgid early stories, and the uniquely interesting quality of Ballard’s work and life makes for a book that’s good enough. However, I’m left with the impression that if there is to be another biography it should be written by a writer of equal stature to Ballard himself, not a showbiz journalist who listens to gossip.

Gossip is the main weakness of Baxter’s book, because he falls foul of the temptation to rely too heavily on the memories of living witnesses. From evidence I have seen elsewhere, much of this book appears to have been heavily influenced by long interviews with Michael Moorcock. Baxter does acknowledge this: he refers to the ‘many hours’ in which Moorcock ‘recalled his memories of the man who, for three decades, was his closest friend’. Moorcock regularly describes himself as ‘Jimmy’s best friend’, as he has done in several long, rambling letters published in Pete Weston’s Relapse. Who can dare to question such an affectionate claim? As it happens I knew both men at this time, but did not see them together on any occasion. Whenever I saw Ballard alone he never once acted in the outrageous ways Baxter claims. On the contrary, he always appeared quiet, thoughtful and socially ill at ease. In his senior years, Moorcock has become a self-appointed chronicler of certain periods of the past, and in my view and direct experience (see my review of his blustering The Retreat from Liberty, published in New Statesman in 1983, in which I described how, unfortunately for Moorcock, I had happened to be present at one of the formative anecdotal experiences he claimed) he is an unreliable witness who filters every impression or experience through his own ego. One should weigh in the balance every word of his gossipy memoirs, which is something John Baxter clearly has not done.

Throughout the book, Baxter refers to Ballard as ‘Jim’, which I consider a presumption too far. First-name terms should be reserved to family and genuine friends. Baxter quotes freely from Ballard’s own utterances, presumably from articles or interviews, but does not note the source or give credit. Although there are at the back of the book a few pages of acknowledgements, and a long list of sources, none of these is cross-referenced to the quotes. How did the publisher allow Baxter to quote so much copyright material without direct acknowledgement or (apparently) permission? There is no Contents page. And how did the publisher approve the index, which not only contains a maze of passing references, but many subsidiary references without annotation? E.g. the index entry for New Worlds consists of thirty references by page number alone (and on investigation many of these turn out to be passing references). This lack of scholarly attention makes the book a poor reference work, even for an ordinary reader seeking information.

It is anyway a poor show. J. G. Ballard, now rightly recognized as one of the major 20th century writers, clearly deserves a substantial biography, but this is not it.

Dying is obviously an increasingly risky business. Get a few books published, or a few films made, and the gossips are out there, waiting for you with their unknown personal motives and their attempts to insinuate themselves into what little they can discover of your private life. I should hate to think that two years after my own death, my family would have to put up with a tabloid account written by a stranger, reporting what other people have said about me, and referring to me throughout as ‘Chris’.

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.

SOLAR – Ian McEwan (2010, Jonathan Cape, £18.99; ISBN: 978-0-224-09049-0)

There’s a revealing passage about 200 pages into this novel. In a flashback sequence McEwan’s protagonist Michael Beard is starting his third year at Oxford, when he hears about a promisingly sexy undergraduate called Maisie Farmer. Maisie is reading English, specializing in John Milton. Knowing nothing about literature (he is Maths and Physics), Beard takes a week off and crams as much of Milton as he can manage. Later contriving a meeting with her, Beard dazzles his intended with a tear-wrenching recital of Milton’s poem ‘Light’. He follows this up moments later with the gift of a calf-bound 1738 edition of Areopagitica. Unsurprisingly, he is soon in the young lady’s bed.

The scene is uncannily similar to one in the film Groundhog Day. In this, Bill Murray cynically uses his unnaturally acquired knowledge of Andie MacDowell’s tastes and preferences to try to impress her. Murray quotes (in French) from recently crammed memory a few lines from MacDowell’s favourite poem. They too end up in bed together.

The passage in Solar is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, because it is the sort of territory McEwan has visited before. Here he is once again, aware or half-aware, lifting images or making vague quotations from other people’s works. McEwan, along with several million other people, must have admired the witty contrivances of the Groundhog Day script. Audience familiarity of this sort, in the world of the supposedly challenging literary novel, breeds contentment. Much of the success of McEwan’s writing must be based on this comforting quality: readers seem instinctively to recognize and understand his images, already half-digested from somewhere else. It makes him into a reassuring, undemanding writer.

He has now done the reworking trick so many times that it is beyond accident: he is routinely careless with his sources (admitting once in a TV interview that he fills his notebook with all sorts of odd quotes and references, many of which he has written himself, but many more of which he copies down from other writers). This bad practice became apparent early on his career. It is not formal plagiarism, but in some respects is even worse – it makes him imaginatively secondhand. There was the story ‘Dead as They Come’ (1978) referencing J. G. Ballard’s 1976 story from the magazine Bananas, ‘The Smile’. McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden (1978) was compared by many to Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House (1963). Most notoriously of all, there were the rather too many line-by-line comparisons between certain passages of his novel Atonement (2001) and sections from Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography, No Time for Romance (1977). All this is too close for comfort, and every time it becomes apparent that he has done it again McEwan is diminished by it.

The second reason for our being interested is because it suggests something of the way in which McEwan crams for his own novels. Ever since Enduring Love (1997), McEwan has been including chunks of acquired knowledge in his books. He is no more a science writer (Enduring Love) or a neurosurgeon (Saturday, 2003) than he is a physicist (Solar), but there are many pages of specialist vocabulary, jargon and other references in all of these. Clearly, he has to go and look these things up, or perhaps he meets useful or important people over dinner who then invite him to sit in on a brain operation, or slam around the Arctic on a snowmobile for a week. All novelists research their material but some do it more than others. Historical novelists, for instance, also go in for this kind of mechanically acquired research, and the worst ones in that genre cannot resist downloading and pasting in every last drop of discovered information, however irrelevant to the characters or the story.

Because McEwan can actually write good English, his version of this kind of borrowed material is phrased well enough, but a good style cannot prevent it being dull, irrelevant to the novel, unenlightening of the character and, above all, obviously crammed. And with what intention? Is the author’s motive as cynical as his character’s, to give us a calf-bound copy of scientific mumbo-jumbo, to make us misty-eyed with emotion and surrender our doubts?

Let us move on to a different but not entirely unrelated matter. At the Hay Festival in 2008, McEwan gave a reading from work-in-progress. It transpired that the passage was from this novel, Solar. I was not present, but I heard about it on a couple of blogs by people who had been there and who were eager to mock the great man because of it. According to them the dubious passage concerned an encounter on a train, with two men (Beard, and a stranger) eating potato crisps from the same packet, each thinking that it was his own packet and the protagonist only discovering afterwards that he was the one who had been mistaken. Although at this stage the report of McEwan’s use of this story was for me clearly only hearsay, the extract certainly appears in the finished novel, on pp 121-127 of the Cape edition.

Now, hearsay or not, when I read about this my instinct was one of embarrassment for McEwan. I had first heard this story (which actually involved chocolate biscuits, not potato crisps) from Douglas Adams. He told it to me in 1980 as a true anecdote, something that had happened to him at Cambridge station while waiting for a train. I was amused by it and in all probability repeated it to other people. Not long afterwards I realized that it had all the qualities of an urban myth and although I trusted and believed what Douglas had told me, I soon discovered there were several variants of the story going the rounds. Whether or not it had ‘actually happened’ was irrelevant: it was in vernacular circulation.

I was embarrassed for Ian McEwan because by reading this story aloud at a public meeting he was obviously proud of it, presenting it as an attractive example of his current work. But didn’t he realize what it was? It seemed to me that here was another example of him borrowing someone else’s stuff, but this time in a way obvious to so many that he would only be humiliated by it. However, I also believed that the hostile comments from those bloggers, and other people who were aware of what had happened, would bring it home to McEwan in the nick of time so he could cut the terrible scene from his novel.

As I say, pp 121-127 bear testament to the fact that he did not cut it. Those are seven awful and unoriginal pages. What he did was much worse, unheeding of the advice that when you’re in a hole you should stop digging, and he tried to patch it up. Twenty pages after the crisp encounter, the character Beard makes a speech to a conference. Here we go into a long cut-and-paste use of the author’s research notes, a rather simplistic discourse on the problems of global warming. Bad enough on its own (and tiresomely long), but McEwan adds an extra twist. He puts into Beard’s mouth a second telling of the crisp-eating encounter, then as a peroration contrives some moralistic point from it about the follies and assumptions of industrialism.

McEwan therefore not only reminds us of his own casual use of an urban myth, he underlines its presumed importance. However, at this point it becomes clear that McEwan had been made belatedly aware of his crisp-eating folly, because a new character, one Mellon, suddenly appears and apprises Beard of the urban myth. Mellon voices the objections one would have: he even quotes the Douglas Adams connection, and names it with the title by which it is known to those who collect and categorize urban myths: ‘The Unwitting Thief’. Beard responds with what one might call the Douglas Adams Defence – that against all likelihood, and by some amazing coincidence, this urban myth had actually happened to him. It was real. (Therefore, McEwan’s argument appears to be, all the moralizing was justified.)

But it’s not real, is it? When McEwan wrote it he clearly thought of it as something that actually happened to his character Beard. McEwan had heard the story from someone, then in his habitual manner transferred it undigested into his fiction. Belatedly, perhaps months later, or when someone at the publisher pointed it out, he realized he had been caught out again in the semi-plagiarism that so diminishes him, and he tried to justify it from the mouth of one Mellon.

Ian McEwan presents a peculiarly difficult problem to those of us who see the novel as a demanding, interesting and challenging artistic form. He is clearly gifted: his use of English is always good and at times his prose is excellent. (He’s a much more rounded stylist than, say, Julian Barnes.) But a good style is not enough: compared with writers like Roberto Bolaño, Emmanuel Carrère, Steve Erickson or Daniel Kehlmann, McEwan is timid, unadventurous and derivative. Furthermore, he seems now to be entering the old-age period of being a novelist: making an attempt to sum things up, trying to tackle the issues of the day, showing his awareness of politics and the state of the nation, being obeisant to those who will reward and honour him, and displaying a witless desire to be seen as a sort of semi-critical, but always courteous, member of the establishment. None of this should be the concern of a novel, except incidentally. The role of an artist is impossible to pin down, but it doesn’t include forelock tugging to prime ministers or literary nabobs.

As for his semi-plagiaristic activities, they are to his lasting shame. He should question everything he hears before he notes it down for future use – he should digest it, subvert it, re-imagine it, make it his own.

McEwan clearly now seeks the consensus and has been amply rewarded for it, but perhaps he should from time to time remind himself what his real interest in writing is, or at least used to be. The young McEwan was or seemed to be a gratifyingly anti-establishment writer, who was blessed with a peculiar and slightly nasty imagination, and a gift for the telling image. All that has gone. In this long, tame and often dreary narrative it is hard to glimpse what he once might have become.

ME AND KAMINSKI – Daniel Kehlmann; trans. Carol Brown Janeway. (2009, Quercus, £7.99; ISBN: 978-1-84724-989-0)

Me and Kaminski was first published in Germany in 2003; it was not translated into English until 2008, and this is the paperback edition. Kehlmann is admirably going about proving that Germans have a light and infectious sense of humour, thus overturning the usual lazy British generalizations about Germans. This is not slipstream in the way that Fame (below) was slip, but it has much the same unexpected quality to its writing. The story, such as it is, deals with the attempts of Sebastian Zöllner, a young art critic (who is cunning and determined, but pretty hopeless on, er, art and almost everything else), to meet and interview and eventually write a biography of an equally cunning but famous and eccentric elderly painter called Manuel Kaminski. Up against it from the start, Zöllner, who is rather like a character from a Kingsley Amis novel, becomes increasingly ruthless and more and more unlikely to get his story. Part social comedy, part road novel, Me and Kaminski is not a great or serious work of literature, but it is endlessly entertaining, well written and in its own way highly original. Increasingly, it is ‘foreign language’ writers like Kehlmann, Roberto Bolaño and Emmanuel Carrère who are bringing home the truth, until now apparent to many people who care about serious fiction, but not alas to everyone, that English-language literary drudges like Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, Pat Barker and Julian Barnes have been creatively dead for about three decades.

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING – Julian Barnes (2011, Jonathan Cape, £12.99; ISBN: 978-0-224-09415-3)

Julian Barnes is an admired writer, respected by literary editors, praised by reviewers and presumably rewarded by a large readership. I don’t get it. I’ve read at least five of his books in the past, and have always been able to admire his ability with English, but all his novels have left me with a feeling of authorial vacuity.

It’s been a while since I read anything of his, so I thought I’d spring for this new one, just out from Cape, and rather attractively packaged in a cover by Suzanne Dean, depicting blown dandelion seeds. Within a few pages of the start, the author’s bland and insipid manner swept over me: I felt I was trapped in a corner of a room by a well-spoken and endlessly polite English nonentity, who wanted to tell me of his many conventional insights into the human psyche. I listened with equal English politeness, waiting for the moment of irony, self-awareness, or even originality that would justify this deadening approach. I waited in vain. It’s not that his subject is uninteresting: the mysteries of relationships, the loss of love, the misunderstandings that can drive a space between lovers, the struggle to adapt and become aware — these are all valid subjects for a good novelist, and fecund material for a sensitive writer. That is not Julian Barnes. His literary ability is feeble: the characters he creates are much of a muchness and his narrator is smug, banal and maddeningly dull. Was that the point? I started to think and hope so, but the endless middle-class assumptions and the sound of well-behaved wittering went on and on.

Emmanuel Carrère has written a novel that interestingly is not all that different in subject, but his novel is a masterpiece of originality, it is powerfully written and full of real emotion. I finished the Barnes book believing that although this author is clearly adequately equipped to write a decent novel he is yet to do so. He appears to have nothing to say worth saying. There is some inner failing, a weakness of the will or a lack of seriousness that means he is now unlikely ever to tackle a real novel. The ending can be all too easily sensed.

FAME – Daniel Kehlmann; trans. Carol Brown Janeway (2010, Quercus, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1-84916-376-7).

A wonderful example of pure slipstream: innovative, multi-levelled, endlessly amusing, completely original. Kehlmann is a young German writer, currently living in Vienna. This is his third novel. Like all the best slip, Fame more or less defies description, even undermining any attempt to recount the plot. It’s one of those books that as soon as you’ve finished it, your interest has been so piqued by the author’s intrigue that you want to go back and start all over again. And no, it’s completely non-fantastic — everything happens in the here and now, no troublesome fantasy to have to put up with. This is middle Europe in the present day, a world of mobile phones, grumpy authors, assisted suicide, self-fulfilment books and characterless hotels. It is the most enjoyable novel I have read this year. So far.