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
Nineteen Eighty-Four
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
Memento Mori
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
High-Rise
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.

F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with their daughter Frances. Photo: Getty Images.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge