Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 2 – Graham Greene



[These appendices add Robinsons to those already in the book (Robinson) or glance again at Crusoe. See also previous post, 'Robinson: appendix 1'.]

‘Gloom was apt to descend on all of them as soon as the taxi entered the deep shade of the laurel drive which led to the high-gabled Edwardian house that his father had bought for his retirement because it was near a golf course.’ Well, yes.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor (recommended for its Robinson link by TH: thank you) is to me a disappointment, all the more so because I remember a time when I enjoyed reading Greene. Maurice Castle is a low-level member of the intelligence services working in a London office. He has a black South African wife and a son; his wife worries about the son going to prep school but Castle reassures her: ‘He’s a good runner. In England there’s no trouble if you are good at any sort of games.’ So many stereotypes are in play here that I can't be bothered to begin. Games-playing is how Castle’s colleagues think of their intelligence work: ‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it.’

(How important is it not to take games ‘too seriously’? Seriously important. Careers and livelihoods depend upon just the right degree of non-seriousness. It’s a British code.)

Women in The Human Factor are off to the side: secretaries, ‘tarts’, wives who are remote. Even Sarah, Castle’s wife, a character essential to the book, which has to do with how love rather than ideology can be reason for betrayal, is a blank. Much alcohol is drunk in these pages, mainly whisky and port. Lunch at the Reform Club is steak-and-kidney pudding followed by treacle tart. At the Travellers Club, roast beef (‘Perhaps a little overdone?’). The English stodginess is compounded, for most of the book, by the clunky, writing-by-numbers way the plot is advanced.

At the end of the novel Castle – whose interpretation of the rules of the game has been naïve – is alone, marooned in a bleak apartment in Moscow. ‘In the evening he would warm some soup and sit huddled near the radiator, with the dusty disconnected telephone at his elbow, and read Robinson Crusoe.’ Another marooned Englishman comes across Castle reading Crusoe: ‘Ah ha, the great Daniel. He was one of us.’ ‘One of us?’ ‘Well, Defoe perhaps was more an MI5 type.’

Castle’s reading matter is appropriate. The other books available to Castle include ‘school editions’ of Shakespeare and a couple of Dickens novels: these school editions are what he grew up with (along with Rider Haggard: Allan Quatermain was his ‘childhood hero’). Throughout Greene’s novel, all the men playing the game of running the world and sworn to an official Secrets Act, married or not, are lonely and have difficulty in relating to others. Robinson argues that this state of affairs is the inevitable result of elevating Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to the status of a kind of national set text. And though in obvious ways Greene's novel feels dated (it’s pre-internet), the gloom of the high-gabled Edwardian house and the adjacent golf course feels horribly familiar.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Robinson: appendix 1 – Elizabeth Bowen



As Tom Sabine suggests in his kind note on Robinson (here; and then here), once Robinson is on the radar he keeps cropping up.

Following up Tom Sabine’s suggestion, here’s Robinson in Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Summer Night’, the final story in her 1941 collection Look at All the Roses: ‘Robinson did not frequent drawing rooms … When he was met, his imperturbable male personality stood out to the women unpleasingly, and stood out most of all in that married society in which women aspire to break the male in a man … When Robinson showed up, late, at the tennis club, his manner with women was easy and teasing, but abstract and perfectly automatic. From this had probably come the legend that he liked women “only in one way” … Robinson had on him the touch of some foreign sun.’

Did Bowen name this character knowingly? I doubt it. Still, he is in the club (whose other members, as surveyed in Robinson, include the Robinsons of Céline, Kafka, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit, Sherwood Anderson, Muriel Spark, et al), even if less for his own awkwardness than for the disconcerting effect he has on others. Justin, in company with Robinson, becomes ‘prone, like a perverse person in love, to expose all his own piques, crotchets and weaknesses’. The woman who at the start of the story is driving to Robinson to spend the night with him becomes, when at last she is alone with him, stranded: ‘The adventure (even, the pilgrimage) died at its root, in the childish part of her mind.’ Only Justin’s sister, completely deaf, is at ease with him (‘She does not hear with her ears, he does not hear with his mind. No wonder they can communicate.’).

It’s a fine story: a late summer light, three generations (including a child dancing naked on her parents’ bed with snakes chalked on her skin), inconvenient guests, urgency and ennui, wartime (‘Now that there’s enough death to challenge being alive we’re facing it that, anyhow, we don’t live. We’re confronted by the impossibility of living’). Nothing, really, happens. Elizabeth Bowen is to me a touchstone, but I hadn’t read this story before: thank you for the cue.

Robinson in this story is the outsider. He’s a ‘factory manager’. He has been in this town for three years, which sounds a reasonable length of time but, in a small town, isn’t. He ‘had at first been taken to be a bachelor’ but he’s not; he’s living apart from his wife and children (three, one dead). The woman who is driving to him is also married, also has children. Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of Bowen (which I’d forgotten I had; I found it while perched on a stool looking for another book entirely), says that ‘the starting point’ for Robinson was a man named Jim Gates, ‘the manager of a creamery in Kildorrey’: ‘completely non-intellectual, genial, a life-and-souller’. With Jim Gates, Glendinning writes, Bowen ‘had, simply, a good time, with lots of drinks and lots of cigarettes and easy laughter … His company was a liberation not only from the excessive sensibility of others but from her own – that sensibility which was at the centre of her talent and also, some have thought, its limitation’. Bowen, Glendinning writes, ‘needed men like Jim Gates: extrovert, practical, a little coarse.’ I’m very uncomfortable with literary biographers telling me what their subjects needed, or didn’t need, but I think I know a Robinson when he turns up.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Robinson: an update

A nice note on Robinson’s Robinson is here (courtesy The Brooknerian). The book itself is here. Thank you to those who have alerted me to other members of the family.

I’m not sure that Robinson even voted in the EU referendum in June last year, and I haven’t asked. Sometimes a dank torpor seems to settle over him. If he didn't vote, it may well have been because the referendum campaigns were a shoddy advertisement for democracy: ill-prepared, poorly delivered, cheap rhetoric displacing valid information. Very few people – including the politicians – had any realistic notion of the consequences of a vote to leave the EU. Many still don't. Robinson believes that many who voted to leave were not voting specifically about the EU; rather, they were sticking up a finger to a political establishment that didn’t appear to listen to anyone outside the London, the media and its own woodworm-infested corridors. They were saying: we exist, and we’re fed up with being taken for granted, a plague on both your houses, and we’re not going to vote X just because you tell us we should.

There is no clear mandate for Brexit. The difference between the leave vote (51.9%) and the remain vote (48.1%) was just over 1.25 million. Nearly 13 million of the electorate chose not to vote at all. Out of a total electorate of 46.5 million, just 17.4 million voted to leave. Anyone declaring that Brexit is ‘the people’s will’ is unfit for office. Anyone declaring that ‘getting on with the job’ of Brexit is ‘in the national interest’ – as May does, May who herself believed before the referendum that Brexit was not in the national interest at all – needs their head looking at.

Robinson once hated rhubarb, now he likes it. Robinson once married an heiress, thinking it would solve all his problems, and it didn’t, and now he is not married. The whole point of having a mind is that one can change it. In general, British democracy allows for this: we vote a government in and if we decide we’ve made a mistake, we can vote it out. Brexit is different. To press ahead with a decision recklessly based on such a narrow vote, with consequences that will affect people's lives for generations, without a fail-safe mechanism – whoops, we may have pressed the wrong button there – maybe rhubarb isn’t so bad after all – is just daft. Even Robinson can see that.