Fitzgerald, Woolf and J G Ballard: five classic book reviews from the NS archive
Reviews by Amis, Pritchett, Royde-Smith and Naipul.
27 March 1925
The Great Gatsby
F Scott Fitzgerald Chatto & Windus, 7s
Mr Fitzgerald's story of New York's Bohemian and Smart Sets has qualities that remove it from the ruck of such novels. The Great Gatsby himself is drawn with spirit and insight and humour, a man who, though many kinds of rogue, is yet an idealist and dreamer of dreams. When we first meet him, Gatsby is the centre of a flamboyant society that sponges upon, despises and slanders him. He is living in an enormous and pretentious mansion on Long Island, where he keeps open house. We soon learn that this ostentation of wealth is but a means to an end. During the war Gatsby, a young officer with nothing but his pay, had met and loved a young woman of the established rich and his love had been returned. This girl is now married to a wealthy man of her own class who is notoriously unfaithful to her. They are living on Long Island and Gatsby is there to meet her. He does, and for a time it seems that he will succeed in winning her from her husband, but in the end she cheats him, and he is killed in error by a man whom the husband has wronged. Mr Fitzgerald is a satirist with a pretty thick velvet glove. When the narrator of the story tells the unhappy Gatsby that he is the best of the bunch, we agree.
4 June 1927
To the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf Hogarth Press, 7s.6d
Reviewed by Naomi Royde-Smith
Mrs Woolf is illuminated, analytic and radiant with a personal quality that increases in beauty and power with every book she writes and has in To the Lighthouse reached a pitch unsounded by any English writer of her school. Her story is meagre enough. Little James Ramsay, aged six, longs above all things to be rowed out to the lighthouse on the island that faces the Hebridean port near which the Ramsays have their summer holiday house. Mr Ramsay doesn't want to go, and when the weather threatens, he takes an oppressive pleasure in declaring the trip planned for the morrow to be out of the question. Ten years later Mrs Ramsay is dead, the War has devastated the original party, and James himself steers the boat that takes his father and his elder sister to the lighthouse while Lily Briscoe, the painter, sets up her canvas on the lawn of the Ramsays' house and tries, once more, to set down the picture she could not paint on the day when Mrs Ramsay was reading aloud to little James, when his hopes were shattered and his mother, to console him, "turned the pages of the Stores list in the hope that she might come upon something like a rake, or a mowing-machine which, with its prongs and its handles, would need the greatest skill and care in cutting out".
But into this slender frame Mrs Woolf has fitted a picture so rich and poignant that, watching it, we do not seem to be reading a novel so much as living a part of our own lives.
Mrs Woolf's art is, after a difficult apprenticeship, at last entirely her own servant. She has herself described her own impulsions, her own way with the life she touches so surely. Lily Briscoe, loving Mrs Ramsay, asks herself: "What art was there known to love or cunning by which one pressed through to those secret chambers? . . . How then did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives which were people."
And it is the very honey of souls, sweet yet sharp, mysterious and delectable, heavy with the garnered plunder of the years that is distilled for us in this beautiful novel.
18 June 1949
George Orwell Secker & Warburg, 10s
Reviewed by V S Pritchett
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book that goes through the reader like an east wind, cracking the skin, opening the sores; hope has died in Mr Orwell's wintry mind, and only pain is known. I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing; and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing and withering indignation that it is impossible to put the book down. The faults of Orwell as a writer - monotony, nagging, the lonely schoolboy shambling down the one dispiriting track - are transformed now he rises to a large subject. He is the most devastating pamphleteer alive because he is the plainest and most individual - there is none of Koestler's lurid journalism - and because, with steady misanthropy, he knows exactly where on the new Jesuitism to apply the Protestant whip.
The story is simple. In 1984 Winston Smith, a civil servant and Party member in the English Totalitarian State (now known as Air Strip No 1), conceives political doubts, drifts into tacit rebellion, is detected after a short and touching period of happiness with a girl member of the Party and is horribly "rehabilitated". Henceforth he will be spiritually, emotionally, intellectually infantile, passive and obedient, as though he had undergone a spiritual leucotomy. He is "saved" for the life not worth living. In Darkness at Noon, death was the eventual punishment of deviation: in Nineteen Eighty-Four the punishment is lifeless life.
A generation from now, the world is composed of three States, Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia in perpetual war. From time to time these States change sides, and the mass of people have little clear idea at any moment of whom are their allies or their enemies. These wars are mainly fought on the frontiers away from the great cities and their objects are, fundamentally, to use up the excessive productiveness of the machine, and yet, contradictorily, to get control of rare raw materials or cheap native labour. Another important attraction of war is that it enables the new governing class, who are modelled on the Stalinists, to keep down the standard of living and nullify the intelligence of the masses who they no longer pretend to have liberated. War is peace.
It is with this moral corruption of absolute political power that Mr Orwell's novel is concerned. London lies decaying like an old cabbage in the remains of its seedy 19th-century building, but high above the streets tower the four main ministries of Ingsoc: the Ministry of Truth, for the issuing of lies, that is to say, official news, official culture; the Ministry of Plenty, for the purpose of organising scarcity; the Ministry of Peace for conducting war; and the dubious Ministry of Love, windowless and surrounded by barbed-wire and machine-guns, where political prisoners are either executed or "rehabilitated" by the new Inquisition. A recalcitrant will enter the Ministry of Love and emerge an official sponge, incapable of private life, without memory; private memory and the sexual impulse are the two deadly sins. Enjoying them, the virtues of obedience and hysteria are impossible to the citizen. In the homes of Party members - and all except the "proles" or workers have some place in this hierarchy - a telescreen is fitted, from which canned propaganda continually pours, on which the pictures of Big Brother, the leader, and the ancient enemy and anti-Christ, Goldstein, often appear. Also by this device the Thought Police, on endless watch for Thought Crime, can observe the people night and day.
Winston Smith's doubts began when, accidentally, there came into his hands a complete piece of evidence of State lying. The doubts drove him to action: he bought a notebook and started a diary, that is to say, a piece of writing not directed by the State. He tried to define "double-think": "To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete untruths while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy . . ."
Newspeak, the new Basic English blessed by scientists and the Party, is the natural offspring of Doublethink. " 'You think, I dare say,' says Syme, the Party philologist, 'that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words.' "
The aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought, and to remove from the classics all the subversiveness which could pollute the minds of Party members. The time will come when the official slogans, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength, will not be required, "simply because there will be no thought as we understand it now".
Mr Orwell's book is a satirical pamphlet. I notice that some critics have said that his prophecy is not probable. Neither was Swift's Modest Proposal nor Wells's Island of Dr Moreau. Probability is not a necessary condition of satire which, when it pretends to draw the future, is, in fact, scourging the present. The purges in Russia and, later, in the Russian satellites, the dreary seediness of London in the worst days of the war, the pockets of 19th-century life in decaying England, the sordidness of bad flats, bad food, the native and whining streak of domestic sluttishness which have sickened English satirists since Smollett - all these have given Mr Orwell his material. The duty of the satirist is to go one worse than reality; and it might be objected that Mr Orwell is too literal, that he is too oppressed by what he sees, to exceed it. In one or two incidents where he does exceed, notably in the torture scenes, he is merely melodramatic: he introduces those rather grotesque machines which used to appear in terror stories for boys. In one place - I mean the moment when Winston's Inquisitor drives him to call out for the death of his girl, by threatening to set a cageful of famished rats on him - we reach a peak of imaginative excess in terror, but it is superfluous because mental terrorism is his real subject.
Until our time, irony and unnatural laughter were thought to be the duty of the satirist. More strikingly than in any other genre, it is indispensable for satire to sound "untrue", an effect Voltaire obtained by running a large number of true things together in a natural manner. The laughter of Voltaire, the hatred of Swift were assertions of vitality and the instinct to live in us, which continually struggles not only against evil but against the daily environment.
But disgust, the power to make pain sickening, the taste for punishment, exceed irony and laughter in the modern satirist. Neither Winston Smith nor the author laughs when he discovers that the women of the new State are practised hypocrites and make fools of the Party members. For Mr Orwell, the most honest writer alive, hypocrisy is too dreadful for laughter: it feeds his despair.
As a pamphleteer, Orwell may be right in his choice of means. The life-instinct rebels against the grey tyrannies that, like the Jehovah of the Old Testament, can rule only as long as they create guilt. The heart sinks, but the spirit rebels when one reads Mr Orwell's ruthless opening page, even though we have met that boiled cabbage in all his books before.
But though the indignation of Nineteen Eighty-Four is singeing, the book does suffer from a division of purpose. Is it an account of present hysteria, is it a satire on propaganda, or a world that sees itself entirely in inhuman terms? Is Mr Orwell saying, not that there is no hope, but that there is no hope for man in the political conception of man? We have come to the end of a movement. He is like some dour Protestant or Jansenist who sees his faith corrupted by the "doublethink" of the Roman Catholic Church, and who fiercely rejects the corrupt civilisations that appear to be able to flourish even under that dispensation.
The text of this review has been edited for length
28 March 1959
Muriel Spark Macmillan, 15s
Reviewed by V S Naipaul
I had gathered that Memento Mori was funny, that its subject was old age, decrepitude and death; and I had assumed that it belonged to that sort of humour which attempts, by frenzied and neurotic mockery, to allay fear. I was wrong. There is nothing cruel or facetious in this novel. We are not asked to laugh at the antics of the senile. Death is neither funny nor horrible. It is simply to be remembered and awaited.
Nearly everyone in Memento Mori is over 70, and many over 80. Whether in Hampstead or Kensington or the Aged Women's Ward, they are all preoccupied with their failing bodies and have a keen eye for signs of fading in others. They worry interminably about wills, their own and other people's. They read the newspapers, not for headlines, but for obituaries.
In this world, daily shrinking, there is still room for generosity, sacrifice, intrigue and malice, though the voice on the telephone repeatedly reminds them all that they must die.
Charmian Colston is 85. In Edwardian days she wrote successful romantic novels; they are the only things she can remember at all clearly. She calls all her men Eric, after her son, and all women Taylor. Charmian is bullied by her husband, who is 87; he has always been jealous of her success and is at last able to take his revenge. Around them are other ancient figures: the critic, Charmian's former lover, still bitterly hated by the poet; "Taylor", the maid, now in the Aged Women's Ward; and the sprightly gerontologist of 73 who, for reasons of research, delights in being the first to transmit good news and bad to his subjects. Trouble starts with the anonymous telephone calls: "Remember you must die." And there are further complications when Charmian's household is invaded by an energetic blackmailer of 73.
There is a Waugh-like brilliance to this novel, in the easy economical narrative, the continuous invention producing a series of surprises, the well-cut dialogue, the controlled tone. This last is the most remarkable of Miss Spark's achievements: the slightest false note, of flippancy or sentimentality, would have upset the delicate balance of this novel. Nothing is forced, least of all the humour.
Muriel Spark has written a brilliant, startling and original book.
14 November 1975
J G Ballard Jonathan Cape £2.95
Reviewed by Martin Amis
Towards the end of Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6, Ransom, the Oedipal, megalomaniac hero, is about to scale the last heights of the mountain when he is told that the local demon will be awaiting him on the summit. Ransom climbs on alone, and as he reaches the summit unharmed - his great moment of personal and public triumph - he sees a small hooded figure on the crest, facing away from him. He approaches the demon, it turns - and it is his mother. Folding on to the ground, Ransom feels his life begin to drain away, as the demon sings him a tender lullaby which is also his dirge. J G Ballard's High-Rise is a harsh and ingenious reworking of the F6 theme, displaced into the steel-and-concrete landscapes of modern urban life.
The high-rise, with its 1,000 overpriced apartments, swimming-pools and shopping concourses, is what Ballard calls "the vertical city", and to begin with its residents observe conventional class and territorial demarcations ("upper", "lower" and "middle" levels), showing resentment, expediency and disdain for their fellow citizens in much the same way as life is run in the outside world. Soon, though, the enclosed nature of the building has encouraged and intensified these aggressions beyond any clear analogy with external society. After various piracies and beatings-up, the class system within the high-rise deteriorates as readily as the building itself, becoming a filthy warren of violent, apathetic or paranoid enclaves. Drunken gangs storm through the blacked-out corridors; women are found raped and murdered in defused elevators; disposal chutes are clogged with excrement, smashed furniture and half-eaten pets. Eventually the high-rise takes on that quality common to all Ballardian loci: it is suspended, no longer to do with the rest of the planet, screened off by its own surreal logic.
Ballard being Ballard, though, High-Rise is no ordinary stroll down atavism lane. The mental journey undertaken by these colonists of the sky is not a return to "nature"; it is a return to the denurtured state of childhood: "For the first time since we were three years old what we do makes absolutely no difference," enthuses one of the affluent anarchists. Ballard's stranded characters have always been more than half in love with their lethal and unnerving environments, and the delinquents of the high-rise are soon completely defined by their new psychopathological "possibilities". One of the most ghostly and poignant scenes in the book has a middle-echelon psychiatrist attempting to leave his barricaded slum and return to work at his medical college; he gets as far as the car-park before the shrill clarity of the outdoors sends him running back to the affectless and soupy warmth of the high-rise, satisfied that he will never try to leave it again. In the closing pages, as hauntingly wayward as anything Ballard has written, the retrograde logic of the high-rise is fulfilled, when the passive, derelict women emerge as the final avengers.
I hope no one wastes their time worrying whether High-Rise is prescient, admonitory, sobering and whatnot. For Ballard is neither believable nor unbelievable, just as his characterisation is merely a matter of "roles" and his situations merely a matter of "context": he is abstract, at once totally humourless and entirely unserious. The point of his visions is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well and this seems to me to be the only intelligible way of getting the hang of his fiction. The prose of High-Rise may not have the baleful glare of that of Crash or Vermillion Sands, but the book is an intense and vivid beastiary, which lingers unsettlingly in the mind.