Category Archives: Novels

Our Man in Havana

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene. Cover by Derek Birdsall, 1975.

Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene divided his books into “serious fiction” and “entertainments”. Our Man in Havana is one of the entertainments, and is probably the funniest.

Greene served with MI6 during the Second World War and worked in the department dealing with the Iberian Peninsula. One of the German’s agents in Portugal, “Garbo”, was a double agent who pretended to control a ring of agents all over England. To support his story he invented troop movements and operations from maps and standard military references. It seems that Garbo became the inspiration for Greene’s protagonist, the reluctant secret agent James Wormold.

The novel was published before the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but aspects of the plot anticipate the crisis in which the US and the Soviet Union came alarmingly close to nuclear war.

I visited Cuba in 2007 with my eldest son who was then 17. Will was keen to see the Bay of Pigs, scene of the failed invasion of  Cuba by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group, and to smoke the largest cigar he could get his hands on. Our plan was to travel independently, avoiding the big, “all-in” resorts. We wanted to use the network of cases particulates,  rooms in private homes that the government had recently allowed Cubans to rent to tourists.

Cuban Bliss

Cuban Bliss

Raised on stories from the Cold War we both believed that most of what characterized Cuba in the first decade of the 21st century – crumbling buildings, old American cars, food shortages – was  the result of the US trade embargo that followed the 1962 Crisis. We were unaware that much of what we would experience – including the casas particulares – stemmed from a much more recent event in world history. The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the período especial, the economic crisis that followed the withdrawal of Soviet  subsidies. We didn’t realise how bad the  resultant hardship had been until we met the Cuban people who welcomed us into their homes.

Although most ordinary Cubans avoided starvation, persistent hunger was a daily experience. People ate anything they could find.  Someone told us that many of the animals in the Havana zoo “disappeared” and domestic cats became sources of protein rather than affection. A taxi driver enquired how old Will was. He had a daughter the same age “but”, he asked me, “how could we bring any more children into the world when there was no food to give them?”

Malnutrition caused epidemics, but it had positive effects too. The período especial radically transformed the Cuban economy and led to the introduction of sustainable agriculture,  less reliance on motor transport and the strengthening of the National Health System; Cuba’s average life expectancy is now close to that of the US.

However, in 2007, Will and I discovered that it was still much easier to buy an expensive cigar than fresh vegetables in Havana’s markets.

The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald, Penguin Fiction, 1950

This Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby was published in 1950; around the time that it became accepted as a great work of literature. The book is one of the few blockbuster titles in The Perfect Library and is widely considered to be a literary classic.

The term blockbuster first appeared in the American press a few years earlier to describe large aerial bombs capable of destroying an entire city block. It soon became the label for any very commercially successful play or film and has subsequently been applied to other forms of entertainment including novels and computer games.

In the US The Great Gatsby became a part of the High School curriculum in the 1950s and it has been filmed six times: first as a silent movie; most recently in 2013 when Baz Luhrmann raised the sexual tension, added a hip-hop soundtrack and filmed Gatsby’s sumptuous parties in 3D.

It wasn’t always that way. When it was published in 1925, Gatsby received mixed reviews and initial sales were modest. Fitzgerald died in 1940, believing that he was a failure and his work had been forgotten. That might well have been the case if his last minute attempt to change the title of the book to Trimalchio in West Egg had been accepted by his publisher; and if a group of publishing executives had not created the Council on Books in Wartime (CBW).

The CBW was a US organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors, and “others” in the spring of 1942 to channel the use of books as “weapons in the war of ideas”. It aimed to influence the thinking of the American people about the war through the promotion of books; by building and maintaining the will to win, exposing the true nature of the enemy, disseminating technical information, clarifying war aims and, finally, by providing relaxation and inspiration. The Council co-operated with the  Office of War Information and other agencies but, officially, the US government did not fund it. A similar scheme, funded by a fictional department of the British Secret Service, lies at the heart of the plot of Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth.

I don’t know why the CBW chose The Great Gatsby. The only one of their criteria that it came close to meeting was to provide relaxation and inspiration. However, 155,000 copies of the book were distributed to American soldiers between 1942 and 1945. How many of these were actually read? Who knows?

Other Great American Novelists who wrote cautionary tales about living the American Dream saw action in World War II. I like to think that a CBW edition of Gatsby might have nestled in Salinger’s pack as he crawled through the Normandy hedgerows; or sustained Vonnegut as he sheltered in his abattoir outside Dresden; or flew with Heller on bombing missions over Italy. The alternative is that the paperbacks met a terrible fate in field latrines across Europe and the Pacific.

A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess, 1962.  Cover by David Pelham, 1968

A Clockwork Orange A Clockwork Orange is by some way Anthony Burgess’s best-known work. It was first published in 1962 and became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic following the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film in 1971.

The novel received a positive critical response but Burgess repeatedly tried to distance himself from it. He claimed it was an unimportant book which he had written in just three weeks. This was probably because its bestseller status overshadowed his other – and better – writing; and partly because he didn’t like Kubrick’s claim on his work. The film was rated “X” in both the UK and the US and was criticized for its graphic violence. As a result both the film and the book were boycotted in the US. Two years after its release, Kubrick took the film out of circulation in Britain following accusations that it inspired copycat rapes and other violent acts.

A Clockwork Orange is set in a future English society with a culture of extreme youth violence. Burgess claimed that his inspiration was the beating inflicted on his wife by a gang of drunken American servicemen stationed in England during World War II. The book’s 15-year-old protagonist Alex narrates his violent exploits and the authorities’ attempts to reform him.

It was originally written in three parts, each with seven chapters. However, for nearly 20 years two, quite different, versions were on sale. The final chapter was omitted from editions published in the US prior to 1986. In the introduction to the updated American text – which included the missing 21st chapter – Burgess explains why. When he first took the book to an American publisher he was told that readers would never go for the final chapter in which Alex recognizes the error of his ways and resolves to turn his life around. Burgess reluctantly agreed but considered this version of his novel to be “badly flawed”. Kubrick’s film adaptation is based on the early American edition of the book, without the final chapter.

Alex’s narrative is delivered in a language created by Burgess.  Nadsat is a mix of modified Russian and other Slavic terms, British rhyming slang and words which Burgess made up. He had a lot of fun with Nadsat. My favourite is horrowshow;  Nadsat  for “excellent”. It looks like an English word but comes  from the Russian word for “good”,  khorosho.

Burgess was often asked to explain the novel’s title. He usually answered that it was based on a common cockney expression, “as queer as a clockwork orange”. However, there is no record of this phrase being used before 1962. On the other hand, nadsat does have a meaning; it is the suffix for Russian numerals from 11 to 19, an almost exact linguistic parallel to the English teen. Clever, eh?

The wide-eyed image of Alex on David Pelham’s cover design reflects the teenager’s appetite for amphetamines  – and the aversion therapy which he receives in prison.

Cakes and Ale

Cakes & AleW. Somerset Maugham, Penguin Fiction, 1948.

William Somerset Maugham has fallen thoroughly out of literary fashion. But at the height of his fame he outsold most of his contemporaries including Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and James Joyce. Maugham himself admitted that he lacked imagination. His best known book, Of Human Bondage, published in 1917, was semi-autobiographical. His other well-known novels, the Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, were both based on historical figures.

In Cakes and Ale, Maugham’s central character, the famous novelist Edward Driffield, was a thinly disguised portrait of Thomas Hardy. However, the damage inflicted on Hardy’s legacy was as nothing to the hatchet job Maugham did on the reputation of his friend and fellow novelist Hugh Walpole, barely disguised as the obnoxious Alroy Kear. Walpole was one of the first to read the novel. After returning home from the theatre, he wrote in his diary: “Half-dressed sitting on my bed, picked up idly Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. Read on with increasing horror. Unmistakable portrait of myself. Never slept.”

Maugham’s private life was, to say the least, unorthodox. As a young man he had “many” homosexual liaisons but nevertheless married Syrie Wellcome,  the daughter of Thomas Barnado, founder of the Barnado’s Children’s’ Homes. Despite his marriage, the sexually predatory Maugham continued to swing like a sailor’s hammock in a gale. He had so many affairs, with both sexes, that one of his companions described him as the most sexually voracious man he had ever known.

Between the wars,  Maugham joined the expatriates who lived on the stretch of coast between Nice and Monaco and held court at his mansion in Cap Ferrat. There were stories of nude bathing parties, drugs, lashings of champagne and nightly seductions of the local boys. Almost everyone who visited was shocked by his decadence. However, it seems that few establishment figures refused an invitation. T.S. Eliot, H.G Wells, Rudyard Kipling, The Duchess of Windsor and Winston Churchill all visited Maugham in the South of France and expressed their horror at what they encountered there. Old age and the Mediterranean sun were not kind to Maugham. Noel Coward waspishly referred to him as The Lizard of Oz.

In the 1920’s Maugham’s reputation came to the attention of Scotland Yard. They warned his older brother, a High Court judge, that aspects of his behaviour were – at the time – illegal. Maugham ignored the warning and was eventually rewarded with the offer of a knighthood for services to literature. He turned it down, hoping for an Order of Merit.

In 2009 a biography by Selina Hastings stripped away the establishment veneer that had protected Maugham and revealed him  as a rapacious and unbridled sex tourist of the most unpleasant kind. The Daily Mail asked, “was this the most debauched man of the 20th century?” Based on the revelations in Hastings’ book it seems like a reasonable question.

If you  Google “Cakes and Ale” today  the top entry is a holiday park in Suffolk.