Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Brothers (1938)

Jonathan Cape (on their ‘Also By This Author’ page for 1938's Apropos of Dolores) bracketed The Brothers together with The Croquet Player (1936), Star Begotten (1937) and The Camford Visitation (1937) as ‘long-short stories’, an oxymoronic hyphenation if ever I saw one. We might say: novellas.

This particular novella is set either in the Spanish Civil War, or else in a fictionalised hypothecation of conflict so close to the Spanish Civil War as makes no odds. Brilliant military leader Richard Bolaris is on the verge of capturing an important city for the Fascist cause. He meets with his mistress Catherine Faress, and together they interrogate a high-profile enemy, recently captured. This is the Communist general Ratzel, who has been coordinating the city's defence.

Ratzel was born in the USA. Bolaris insists he has never been to the States. Nonetheless, Margaret, the guards and Bolaris's deputy Handon, are astonished by the physical resemblance between the two men. Bolaris dismisses it as coincidence, but later arranges for himself and Catherine to have a private interview with Ratzel in which he confesses his secret: he was born in the USA and came to Europe as a child. The two men, it turns out, are twin brothers.

Much of the rest of the novella is taken up with the two of them expounding their respective worldviews (‘“Why are you a communist, Ratzel?” said Bolaris. “Why did you drop your college socialism. And go over to the Right? You — with our brains” [replied Ratzel]’ [3.2]). It turns out, despite their notionally opposite political creeds, they both believe the same things.
“I hate greedy incompetence that has to compel and crush because it cannot direct and govern.”

“And so do I. I hate indiscipline.”

“And so do I.”

“I hate that continual congealing of officialism and professionalism and custom, which is like the hardening of arteries in the state.”

“Well!” said Ratzel, meeting a new idea there. “Yes, so do I—And priests.”

“All sane men resent priests,” said Bolaris.

“And where do you differ;” asked Catherine.

“We don’t differ,” said Bolaris. “Evidently when we scrap our catch-words, we don’t differ.” [Brothers, 3.2]

Wells could have produced a quasi-Socratic dialogue in which hard left and hard right actually engage dialectically. That's not what he's done, though. The grain of this short novel is simply too coarse. Take Bolaris, for instance, surrounded as he is by caricature plutocrats and aristocrats: ‘next to him sat the corpulent figure of Istom, the Big Money of the conspirators, the owner of the catalamite monopoly and the native partner in the foreign exploitation of the Gorram mines’ [4.2]—might this ‘puffy faced’ ‘born hider’ Istom be a Jew, do you think? Hmm Or what about this character, strangely Anglo-aristocratic to be on the advisory committee of a Spanish Civil War fascist general, one might think:
Close up to Istom, as if to assure himself and everyone else of their essential alliance, was the Duke of Carmnavera Credora. He had that narrow aquiline face with large wandering features which is so frequent a result of aristocratic interbreeding. His chin was not an ordinary chin; it was an heirloom. His dark eyes were irregular and scornful, and the exquisite politeness of his manner to all the world was the quintessence of insolence. ... He had syphilis so long inherited and so complicated that it had become less of a disease than a constitutional distinction of which he was proud. His estates covered vast areas; he had ancient castles and palaces and much rare furniture, historical jewels, and priceless paintings, so that Istom’s raw grandeurs and art patronage filled him with ill-concealed contempt. [Brothers, 4.2]
Those wandering features are very hard to visualise, I must say: and syphilis of the sort described would surely be not so much an heirloom as a general paralysis of the insane. But we get it: Wells is painting with the broad brush of polemical satire. I'm just not sure this is a sufficiently nuanced way of analysing these two vastly significant mid-century political allegiances.

At the end of the story Bolaris decides that blood is thicker than ideology, and determines that Ratzel must avoid the firing squad, escape captivity and flee back to his city. ‘We have both been serving the Common Fool,’ he tells his bro. ‘The normal human animal who quarrels by nature, can tolerate no superiority, and hates new things. The Left and Right in any age are just the two faces of the Common Fool, and nothing more, and you have been on one face and I the other. Your communist fool denounces what he calls Utopianism and my individualists denounce Socialism. And when we look into it they mean precisely the same thing’ [5.3].

The plan backfires, though. The Reds attack the Fascist position unexpectedly, Bolaris releases Ratzel in the hope he'll call the attack off. Handon, Bolaris's second-in-command, is on the ramparts marshaling the defences, sees Ratzel slinking away through the olive groves and shoots him with a rifle. Bolaris is furious (‘“Oh, you fool!” cried Bolaris. “You accursed fool!” and leapt upon his right-hand man with murder in his eyes’) and in the struggle Bolaris is killed too. Sic semper tyrannis, I guess.

The Brothers is readable, and certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. But I bounced (as the phrase goes) quite hard off it, nonetheless. 2018 may not be the year in which I find myself most receptive to a fictionalisation of the Left? Right? The're both the same, dude! thesis. A great many people who dedicated and often sacrificed their lives for the Communist cause, just like those people who dedicated and often sacrificed their lives for Fascist, Nazi and nationalist causes, certainly believed that there were substantive and meaningful differences between the two sides of the political spectrum. I'm not sure what this novella is saying beyond ‘hah! those people were idiots to think that!’


  1. Hmm. There's quite a lot more I could say, spinning off from that rather too clumsily-put final paragraph. Rather than attempt to demonstrate 'objective' differences between Communism and Fascism (whatever meaning, if any, objective might have in that context), I would probably discuss the asymmetric reputations those two totalitarianisms have, undeniably, carried with them past their exhaustion and defeat and into the twenty-first century. But I've gone on long enough. This (also lengthy) blog post on Peter Higgins's Wolfhound Empire trilogy contains, in its middle portion, some of my thoughts on this matter. Looking at that old post again, I'm struck that its concerns, fiercely and lengthily argued, are quite niche. It's very much a 50something old lefty reaction, and I'm sure the thing to do here is to step calmly away from reigniting all that superannuated and, to most people, irrelevant passion on this blog too.

  2. It's interesting reading these reviews one after another (possibly more interesting than writing them one after another...). There's an anxiety running through Star Begotten and The Camford Visitation - and, in a different way, The Croquet Player - about how to make the fundamentally political project of the glorious technocratic World State work together with his undoubted gift for storytelling. This book scratches a different itch - how to make the project of the g. t. W. S. work together with politics as we know it. And Wells's solution is simple, as you say: just dismiss politics as we know it - the entire political spectrum, from Marx to Hitler - as a kind of neurotic disorder arising from lack of clear thinking. Because if Communism or Fascism had enough substance to detain a clear-thinking person - if a clear-thinking person could even imagine what it would be like to be a Communist or a Fascist - then surely H. G. Wells would be able to engage with those beliefs. And he couldn't, so nobody could, so there wasn't anything to them. QED.

    I'm starting to worry that Wells's big problem was just not being as clever as he thought he was.

    1. That's so well put, I'm tempted simply to nick it for my book. But then you'll sue me for plagiary, and there will be a drawn-out and expensive court case that ends up bankrupted both of us. What a terrible end to a friendship!

  3. 'I'm starting to worry that Wells's big problem was just not being as clever as he thought he was.'

    Who is in the last decade of a long life?

    Especially given the fireworks at the writing career's start -- when he essentially invented modern science fiction -- and the fact that Wells's sociopolitical ideas essentially never evolved much from what they initially were.

    1. "Clever" isn't the right word, you're correct. But I think there is a lessening in mental flexibility in the later Wells, an inability to see alternatives to what HG thinks is such self-evident common sense that he can only dismiss those who don't agree with him.

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    3. Partly that. Also - and I hate to go down this route because it's historically so drenched in snobbery, but I think with Wells it's unavoidable - a problem to do with being self-taught. As an academic I could read a bit of Marx and think "h'mph, load of nonsense, nothing to it", but I'd always have an uneasy sense that a lot of my peers, and even some people I looked up to, thought there was rather a lot to it. (Compare J_dth B_tl_r.)

      An autodidact doesn't have those institutional brakes. It's not just a matter of being inside or outside the academy - that would lead to snobbery fairly directly - but about situating yourself within a field and taking cues (the kind of writing you take seriously, the kind of writer you trust) from people already active in that field. But if, like Wells, you see yourself as operating within one field in particular, but a field defined and led by you yourself; if you're consciously coming to other fields as a new broom, determined to make sense where no sense had been made before; and especially if you've got the kind of intellectual ability Wells had, when it came to absorbing and synthesising whole fields of information - then there's nothing to stop you coming to a negative conclusion and sticking to it, even if you end up declaring that huge areas of social activity are simply meaningless and surplus to requirements. (Compare R_ch_rd D_wk_ns.)

      So, no, 'clever' isn't quite the word after all. Something to do with lacking a dimension of intelligence - negative capability, maybe? If only there were someone we could call on who'd studied Coleridge...

    4. Keats -- Coleridge -- it's all the same, really.

    5. Damn and blast. Would have sworn it was in the Biographia Literaria, too.