Terrence Rattigan and the New Statesman

The magazine features in a revival of While the Sun Shines.

Terrence Rattigan had a close association with the New Statesman, most strongly just after the Second World War when his friend T C Worsley, who often spent winter breaks at Rattigan’s house in Bermuda, became the magazine’s literary editor and drama critic. In 1950 the playwright provoked the contemporary equivalent of a Twitter storm in the letters pages of the NS when, following a bad reception for his play Adventure Story about  Alexander the Great,  he published his article “Concerning the Play of Ideas” which took a swipe at the idea that drama had to address topical controversies, singling out Ibsen and Shaw for particular criticism. Shaw waded into the controversy closely followed by Sean O’Casey, James Bridie (playwright and translator of Ibsen), Benn Levy (playwright and Labour MP for Eton and Slough 1945-50), Peter Ustinov and Ted Willis.

Rattigan had success in the 1950s with The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables (which also features a copy of the New Statesman read by the Major disgraced by the disclosure of his conviction for a minor sexual offence), but his spell at the heart of the Zeitgeist was over, aggravated by his self regarding remarks after the first night of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.

The hundreth anniversary of his birth last year has produced a spate of Rattigan revivals and his reputation has been restored almost to the heights it reached in the 1930s and 1940s. The hugely successful recent production of his 1944 play Flare Path has now been followed by a revival of the play that immediately preceeded it, While The Sun Shines, at the Lion and the Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. Set in the London of 1943 when many couples were getting hitched only to be parted by the war, sometimes forever, this is not one of the playwright's social commentaries but a very funny comedy featuring the young Earl of Harpenden’s faltering progress towards the altar with Lady Elizabeth Randall. Matters are complicated by the earl’s entanglement with the comely Mabel Crum and Lady Elizabeth’s unwitting bewitching of both a Free French officer Lieutenant Colbert and the Earl’s new found American friend Lieutant Mulvaney. The Duke of Ayr and Stirling, Lady Elizabeth’s permanently impecunious father is desperate for the match to succeed so he can obtain a share of the Harpenden money to fritter away in the bookies – at one point he plays dice to decide which of the suitors will actually make it to the altar. A copy of the New Statesman is brandished at several points in the action, twice as Mabel Crum is dispatched to hide in the kitchen with the NS to keep her company and most memorably when Harpenden clashes with Colbert who proudly admits to being a socialist, convinced that the British aristocracy will soon be extinct. “Well I read the New Statesman, you know” retorts the distressed Earl.  The combination of misunderstandings, bed sharing, military uniforms and a splendid butler called Horton might make you think you’ve seen it before, but never better written than this and probably not better acted either. If you’re in need of cheering up you should go and fall in love with the cast, especially Greer Dale-Foulkes as Lady Elisabeth and Patrick Rogers as her aristo father – when you first see him, he seems a bit too young for the part but his comic ability soon erases those doubts. Rattigan would be delighted, and you will be too.

"While the Sun Shines" runs at the Lion and the Unicorn pub theatre in Gaisford Street, London NW5 until 17 June. Tickets from www.giantolive.com/tickets.html

Sophia Sibthorpe, Iestyn Arwel and Freddie Hutchins in When the Sun Shines
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism