The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

I’ve been meaning to read John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps for some years, having seen both the 1935 Hitchcock film (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together and on the run) and the 1978 film (Robert Powell hanging off the minute-hand of Big Ben) multiple times. (And I recently caught the second half of the 2008 BBC adaptation. Lydia Leonard rubs mustard into Rupert Penry-Jones’s muscly back. Not a scene from the novel.) Even more so when I read somewhere that the meaning of “the thirty-nine steps” is different in the novel than either film. It turns out to be a quite short book, and an interesting glimpse into the origins of the sort of spy-thriller that would come to be one of the defining genres of 20th century fiction.

Supposedly, Buchan decided to write The Thirty-Nine Steps when, finding himself ill in bed and having run out of the sort of “shocker” that provided the best convalescent reading — a “romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible”, as he puts it in his dedication — he went ahead and wrote one himself. (Buchan was a writing powerhouse, producing a stream of novels, short stories, journalism and non-fiction books throughout a life already busy with a legal and political career that eventually saw him installed as Governor General of Canada. He paid for his own further education at Oxford by supplementing a scholarship with income from an already established writing career, but only ever regarded writing as a sideline.) The result was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine between August and September 1915, then published in hardback in October the same year.

The set-up is basically the same in novel and films. Richard Hannay, having made a fortune as a mining engineer in Africa (though I think he’s Canadian in the Hitchcock film), comes back to England to live a life of leisure, but quickly becomes bored. Just when he’s thinking of returning to Africa, excitement comes knocking in the form of Scudder, an American who has for some time been working to crack the details of a covert plot that will lead Europe, and perhaps the whole of the world, into war — a war deliberately planned by a vague and undefined group of foreign agents. (In the Hitchcock film, the Scudder role is provided by a mysterious woman played by Lucie Mannheim. In the 1978 film, Scudder is a retired British intelligence officer played by John Mills.) Scudder has almost got all the details, and knows that the plan hinges on the visit of Karolides, the Greek Premier, to Britain, where he will be assassinated. Scudder needs to live until then so he can warn the authorities, but of course he’s murdered almost straightaway, leaving Hannay not only the one person who knows what’s going on, but also the only suspect in Scudder’s murder, meaning he can’t just turn to the police. He decides the best thing to do is go on the run till nearer the date of Karolides’ visit, then come back and — when he’s understood the contents of Scudder’s coded notebook — prevent the assassination and foil the villains’ plan. He fixes on Scotland as the place to hide, and sets out on a train for the Highlands.

For most of what follows, there’s really no plot, just a series of episodes, in which Hannay has to flee or hide the pursuit of both the police and the “Black Stone” (as the villainous organisation is known). Running across the wilds of Scotland and trying to survive sees him bumping into a variety of characters, from a would-be-novelist innkeeper, a local road-mender, a Free Trade politician, an automobile tourist who is implied to be homosexual (which Hannay, and Buchan through him, take as clear licence to be abusive), and an assortment of Highland locals. For me, this section felt a bit episodic without building up to anything, but it was clear Buchan was enjoying himself. I started wondering if there wasn’t a sort of metaphor for being a writer in Hannay’s situation, as though Buchan were writing about the adventure of writing itself. Given a clue in the form of a coded notebook — like being handed a moment of creative inspiration — Hannay finds himself impersonating a number of different people, like an author proving he can get inside the lives of a variety of characters. Hannay gets into situations he has to figure his way out of, and I couldn’t help feeling Buchan put him into those situations just so Buchan, too, could work his way out of them, as a sort of writing self-challenge.

The element of impersonation seems to be a key aspect of the book. Hannay starts off impersonating a milkman to escape his flat (which is being watched by the agents of the Black Stone), but later ends up playing the role of a tramp, a road-mender, an Australian political expert, and a petty thief, all in an attempt to escape detection. In this he’s guided by advice he remembers from an old friend, “the best scout I ever knew”, who told him how to pass himself off as someone else:

He said, barring absolute certainties like fingerprints, mere physical traits were very little use for identification if the fugitive really knew his business. He laughed at things like dyed hair and false beards and such childish follies. The only thing that mattered was what Peter called ‘atmosphere’.

If a man could get into perfectly different surroundings from those in which he had been first observed, and—this is the important part—really play up to these surroundings and behave as if he had never been out of them, he would puzzle the cleverest detectives on earth…

Richard Hannay looking as much like James Bond as the illustrator can make him

It’s when Hannay eventually returns to England and gets in touch with the authorities that, for me, the tension properly kicks in. Suddenly, he has to understand the final clues in Scudder’s notebook — among them the meaning of that phrase, “the thirty-nine steps”, which will tell him how the villains are planning to escape the country — and catch them before they get out with vital information that will make war not only inevitable, but disastrous for Britain. It’s also at this point Hannay ceases having to impersonate people, and instead has to spot impersonators. The people he’s after are masters of disguise — one is able to walk into a closed meeting of the topmost military staff and pass himself off as the First Sea Lord, in front of people who must surely have met the First Sea Lord many times. Even when Hannay works out where the thirty-nine steps are, and finds the people he knows must be the villains, their bluff at being perfectly ordinary Englishmen is so perfect, he starts to doubt himself.

Quite how he sees through them, at the end, is a bit of a mystery, but it happens:

“…in a flash, the air seemed to clear. Some shadow lifted from my brain, and I was looking at the three men with full and absolute recognition… The three faces seemed to change before my eyes and reveal their secrets. The young one was the murderer. Now I saw cruelty and ruthlessness, where before I had only seen good-humour… The plump man’s features seemed to dislimn, and form again, as I looked at them. He hadn’t a face, only a hundred masks that he could assume when he pleased… But the old man was the pick of the lot. He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating, as ruthless as a steam hammer. Now that my eyes were opened I wondered where I had seen the benevolence. His jaw was like chilled steel, and his eyes had the inhuman luminosity of a bird’s.”

1915 HB cover

It reminds me of H G Wells’s early novels, whose protagonists come to see the world in two ways at once, as both superficially ordinary and, under the surface, full of potential danger. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, after his adventures, the protagonists can’t help seeing the potential beast in everyone around him, however superficially civilised. Here, it’s Hannay’s fellow citizens who seem perfectly, almost boringly, normal one moment, then villainous foreign agents, anarchists and spies the next. (And I can’t help comparing Buchan’s “He was sheer brain, icy, cool, calculating” with Wells’s “intellects vast cool and unsympathetic” from The War of the Worlds.)

Was there something in the late-19th/early-20th century psyche that started to look at the world in a new way, to see that behind the apparently ordered surface, there was the potential for nothing but chaos? Alien invasions and beastmen in the case of Wells, anarchists and war-mongers in the case of Buchan? Rooted, perhaps, in the likes of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, where that double-vision starts with the darker secrets of the human psyche, it quickly leads to distrust of one’s fellows, and then it’s only a short step to the ultimate cosmic horrors of Lovecraft or David Lindsay’s Gnostic fantasy A Voyage to Arcturus. There was definitely something in the collective imagination in those days, and the World Wars that followed did nothing to put anyone’s minds at rest as to the stable nature of things.

The other Buchan novel I’ve reviewed here at Mewsings, Witch Wood, has an element of this too, with its secret coven of Devil-worshippers in a Scottish village. Richard Hannay would become a continuing character in a number of other Buchan novels, which may be worth a read, and the ending, at least, of The Thirty-Nine Steps really worked as a thriller, for me.

^TOP

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

josephconradHeart of Darkness (1899) ends with a moment in which its protagonist and narrator Marlow, returned to Europe after his adventure in the Congo, feels alienated from his fellow human beings:

‘I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.’

There’s a similar moment at the end of HG Wells’s books from the same time. This is from The War of the Worlds (1898):

wells_wotw_penguin1971‘I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher-boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal… Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer… I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body…’

Or, in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896):

wells_iodm_penguin1973‘Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them… When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be…’

higgs_strangerIn each case, an adventure into darkness has given the narrator a double vision of the world or humankind: the civilised surface and the horror beneath. Usually, Conrad’s novella is read as being about how Kurtz, sent to the Congo by the Company to plunder it for ivory, allowed himself to become debased by the supposed savagery of the region. But on a recent re-read of Heart of Darkness, I was also making my way through John Higgs’s book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the 20th Century, and the two books kept chiming together. The chief characteristic of the 20th century, for Higgs, was its loss of any shared central ‘omphalos’ — belief, political system, or cultural perspective — with the result that societies are reduced to nothing but a collection of dissociated individuals, each of whose needs become their own centre, with no larger, more encompassing ideal to bind them together. Higgs’s chapter on ‘Growth’ goes into the idea of how corporations, empowered by the legal fiction that they are individuals, with equal rights to human individuals (though incapable of being imprisoned, or of dying of old age), ‘had no choice but to become undying, unjailable profit-taking machines’. And I think the real darkness Kurtz encounters when he heads down the Congo to rape the natural world of its resources, is the one he brought with him. Unlike the other ‘pilgrims’ (as the narrator Marlow refers to the other Company agents) who are kicking their heels while they wait for an opportunity to pillage some ivory and make their personal fortunes, Kurtz has taken the Company’s driving need for profit as a fervent belief and philosophical ideal — his ‘omphalos’ — and it has made him the most successful ivory-gatherer in the Congo. But it has also made him the most spiritually bankrupt, and utterly dehumanised creature Marlow has ever met. Kurtz has raped the world and debased the people of the Congo to serve his and the Company’s need, and has dehumanised himself in the process. This is not a vision of Imperialistic Europe, but of 20th century corporate man, who serves the need to increase his employer’s profit and believes in nothing else, no other ideals, not even the worth of his fellow human beings.

Returning to Europe, Marlow is brought up short when he visits Kurtz’s ‘Intended’, and finds her talking of her fiancé’s nobility, his vision, his love, and his greatness, when all Marlow has seen is the depths to which a human being can go if he has the capacity to believe in an ideal that is, at heart, utterly corrupt.

HG Wells had his narrators see different hearts of darkness — the ‘Beast in Man’ (John Higgs says that the foregrounding of the previously-hidden id was a defining mark of the 20th century) in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the way that civilised Europeans might be treated as they themselves treated those they ‘colonised’, when sufficiently powerful yet uncaring aliens invade in The War of the Worlds — but there’s an undeniable feeling that, as the 19th century moved into the 20th, there were idealistic shocks to come, and Wells and Conrad, prophetic writers both, were sensing the early-warning tremors.

Apocalypse Now! is one of my favourite films, and I only really understood Heart of Darkness once I’d seen its transplanting of Conrad’s tale to the US war in Vietnam. But, in a sense, it weakens the story, implying that it takes special conditions, such as war, to reveal the heart of darkness. Conrad’s novel may take place in what was then seen, at the time, by his intended audience, as an exotic distant land, but it’s about everyday things, not war: it’s about work, and the corporations who provide us with employment, and how serving them may lead us to dehumanise ourselves and others, even as we ravage the world in the name of profit.

(John Higgs’s interview with Alan Moore, about H P Lovecraft and the 20th Century, is worth a watch on YouTube (23 minutes).)

^TOP

Should we bowdlerize Lovecraft?

I like the way there’s always one fact you know about an author, even if you know nothing else about them. If you know only one thing about Jane Austen, for instance, it’s that she, the great writer on marriage & marriageability, was herself unmarried. If you know only one thing about Charles Dickens, the great writer on (and righter of) social wrongs, it’s that his father was imprisoned for debt and young Charles had to work in a blacking factory, an experience he loathed & feared for the rest of his life. If you know only one thing about H P Lovecraft, it’s that he was a racist. The main difference with the Lovecraft fact is that, while you can read the entire works of Dickens or Austen and never guess their particular fact, if you read enough Lovecraft, you’re sure to stub your toe against his enough times to grow more than wary. And if you do enjoy his fiction for its unique take on the weird, it always does feel like stubbing your toe — both painful & angry-making.

For anyone who likes to read old fantasy, horror, and weird fiction, it’s a constant hazard. Sometimes it seems that no sooner do you find an author you like, you discover some objectionable opinion they held. (Why is this such a hazard for fantasy, horror & weird fiction enthusiasts? Perhaps because we’re more likely to read the not-so-great writers in our genre’s past.) I remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I first read David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor (1932) and encountered its passages — from an author who had previously written that “nationalities, and the patriotism that attends nationalities, are inconsistent with true mental freedom and progress” — having one of his characters explain how “Christ was blue-eyed, belonging by descent to the North”. (I also remember the sense of relief I felt when I read Tolkien’s letter to his would-be publishers in pre-WWII Germany who had asked if he had any Jewish blood; he replied that he was sorry he hadn’t, but would be proud to admit it if he had.) There’s a watershed at World War II, before which racism, and (in Britain) Imperialism and classism, were strewn quite freely through the works of so many writers. (Casual racism, of the “it’s the word we always used, we never meant anything by it” type was still the norm amongst my grandparents’ generation.)

But should we bowdlerize Lovecraft? No. Lovecraft’s racism is part of the man we encounter whenever we read his fiction, and as it’s often the most noticeable of his objectionable characteristics, perhaps that’s one reason for keeping it — it alerts us to the fact that these stories are not the products of an entirely healthy mind. The very thing that draws me to reading Lovecraft — his portrayal of a very bleak and inhuman, even anti-human, universe — is centred on his own intently-held fears and beliefs. Lovecraft had a deep terror of life (which I’m not saying was groundless), and particularly of the body, and in a sense it was only because his racism was, at the time, the most socially acceptable part of his profound world-rejection, life-rejection, and body-rejection, that it comes out so explicitly in his fiction.

Lovecraft’s horror of otherness — most crassly expressed in his fear of the foreign faces and cultures he found himself surrounded by in New York — is ultimately the horror of his own body, and the shadow part of his mind. There is in his fiction a mixed loathing for and longing for union with that “other” — as there always must be, the psyche seeking to heal its self-division — and so we get that moment at the end of “The Outsider” where the protagonist sees his own horrific form in a mirror (which is not simply the end of a cheap twist tale, but a depiction of how far a man can go to deny what he knows is most horrific about himself), but also all those fantasies of having one’s mind transplanted into other, alien bodies, which Lovecraft strained to imbue with horror whilst quite plainly longing to experience.

Should we not read Lovecraft, then? My interest in Lovecraft’s fiction is as much with the man who wrote it as the stories he produces, but I don’t at all mean that I admire him through and through. Lovecraft is the picture of a man struggling at the edge of life, caught between the desire to live and the impulse to reject it all. An intelligent, sensitive, self-limited man, he strove all his life to try and solve the very alien equation at the core of his own psychology. He certainly didn’t achieve perfection at any point, but I believe it’s possible to find in his fiction evidence for the very difficult self-healing, or self-unifying (“I am it and it is I”), process we all undergo, and which is all the more explicit in the works of artists and writers who address the darker realms of the mind. Which is also the reason we go to those works, to try and illuminate our own self-healing, self-unification, and the struggle that goes with it. All authors are fallible human beings, and it’s in none of our interests to pretend they aren’t, to make a cult of them, to revere them unreservedly. Far better that they teach us to be always wary of what we read, and work out our own values for ourselves.

As for whether we should admire such authors, quite often it’s not a question of admiration — it’s fascination, that combination of repugnance and attraction, as much as anything, that brings us back to the work of the most powerful artists. It’s seeing ourselves, in however warped, exaggerated, and difficult-to-take a form, that brings us to their work — just like Lovecraft’s ghoul seeing itself in a mirror. Certainly, that’s what brings me back to Lovecraft.

^TOP