Monday, August 29, 2011
As I have already noted on this site, Wheatley was an admirer of Mussolini.
Black August, set some fifty years after it was written in an imagined post-revolutionary England, cites him as one of the most influential figures of the recent past (while ignoring Hitler entirely), and as late as in the autobiographies he was preparing at the very end of his life Wheatley defended Il Duce for having "done a splendid job in cleaning up Italy", and mourned the "later megalomania (that) led him to throw in his lot with Hitler" as "one of the greatest tragedies in history."
(It is certainly ironic that history generally represents him as one of the monsters of the Second World War, almost when not entirely on a par with Hitler, while the truly monstrous Stalin is allowed a seat with the heroes.)
Wheatley took a keen and informed interest in international affairs through the thirties, and it is notable how often issues relating to Mussolini's Italy crop up in his pages around this time. It is just possible, in fact, that his interest in the subject may have influenced the return of Gregory Sallust in Contraband.
I must stress that what follows here is purest speculation: I am not making a case, indeed I have far from convinced myself. But it is at least persuasive, and at least consistent with Wheatley's established method and habit.
We have seen how Wheatley allows his reading to leak into his work. Often the pattern seems to be a stray reference appearing in one book (when the subject is new to him) followed by a more deeply threaded allusion in a subsequent one, after he has digested it more fully.
A good example is the use of Huxley's Brave New World as, first, the subject of a Hollywood film in Such Power is Dangerous and then as the major structural informant of Black August, while here at the excellent Dennis Wheatley website, a contributor notes how a stray reference to Powys's Glastonbury Romance in Black August likewise announces the book's more considered use as an influence on the plot of The Fabulous Valley. As well as receiving full length treatment in two non-fiction works, Wheatley's thirties novels similarly abound in references to the Russian Revolution and the life of Charles II.
His interest in Fascist Italy is most obviously reflected in The Secret War, which is set against the backdrop of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and reflects, I think, Wheatley's genuinely undecided views on that campaign: the book, as I shall explain further in the next post, reads almost like Wheatley's argument with himself on the subject. The use of the subject goes beyond background detail, and reflects a deep and informed interest. In Drink and Ink he writes of an occasion when he was travelling in Italy at the time of the invasion, and with the prospect of war between Italy and Britain seeming likely he considered hiring a fishing boat to take him to the South of France and avoid internment.
So we know for sure that this was a subject very much on his mind at this time: what grounds are there for linking it with the reappearance of Gregory Sallust?
The question I raised in my post on Contraband was this: why did Wheatley revive Sallust in a totally incompatible time period and with many of his most significant characteristics from his first appearance muted or changed? Why not simply invent a new character with a new name?
Well, let us begin with that surname. I haven't speculated on the nature of any link with his Roman historian namesake until now because I had presumed that there wasn't one, and it remains likely that there was no particular reason why the name had been chosen at first.
But by the time of the character's reappearance in Contraband it is possible that Wheatley's reacquaintance with the original Sallust may have prompted Gregory Sallust's comeback.
One of the few real-life figures namechecked in Secret War is General Graziani. The key military figure in Italy's African wars, he was a fascist cult hero, and a deeply charismatic individual who liked to portray himself as a romantic idealist and intellectual, and to compare himself with the great military leaders of Ancient Rome. I'm only surprised that he doesn't play more of a hands-on role in the book: he strikes me as exactly the kind of man to have appealed to Wheatley's sense of imperial grandeur. Whenever he needed guidance or inspiration, he would claim, he would turn to his "lords and masters": Caesar, Tacitus, Livy - and Sallust.
Sallust (more properly Gaius Sallustius Crispus) was Wheatley's kind of historian: partisan, rowdy, patriotic and with a reputation for immorality that resulted in his temporary banishment from the Roman Senate. His books have something of the sparky, belligerent flavour of Old Rowley and Red Eagle.
In 46 BC he joined Caesar in his African campaign, leading to his appointment as governor of the province of Africa Nova, hence his idolisation by Granziani. It seems certain that in his study of Graziani and the African campaign, therefore, Wheatley would have been reminded of Gregory Sallust by reading of his ancient namesake.
It may have been at this point that he first entertained the idea of reusing Sallust rather than invent a new character in his forthcoming Contraband. It's a slender reed on which to hang a hypothesis of this sort, I admit, but there is one other link that just might push it from possible to plausible.
The original Sallust was born at Amiternum in the country of the Sabines. Is it mere coincidence, therefore, that the all-new 1930s model Gregory Sallust should be given as love interest a woman named Sabine Szenty?
Monday, August 1, 2011
"... But don't you see that if silk can be smuggled in other things can as well. To bankrupt our business houses and cut our customs revenue in half is only their first objective. Unless we can checkmate them they'll start dumping anarchists and agitators here by the hundred - all the scum whose full-time job is to spread discontent and ruin. Then they'll send cargoes of illicit arms to their secret depots, and bombs, and poison gas and every sort of foulness to desecrate England's green and pleasant land. For God's sake man! Forget petty larceny for a bit and give me a free hand to stop that arch-traitor Gavin Fortescue staging a red revolution."
Wheatley speaks a little in Drink and Ink of how, having had the idea for Contraband, he went about plotting it, specifically how he found the right location for the criminals' base.
But he says nothing of how the idea came to him, or why he decided on his most audacious notion yet: to bring back Gregory Sallust, the anti-hero of his novel Black August, which had been set fifty years in the future, and relocate him in the thirties present.
There's no question that this is the most interesting and original aspect of the book that finally appeared.
Though time and familiarity - the latter itself a kind of backhanded tribute - may have blunted its innovations to the casual reader, it's worth remembering just how conceptually bold Contraband is.
Of course there was nothing new in authors reviving favourite characters and giving them new adventures, as Wheatley himself had done with 'those modern musketeers' the Duke De Richleau and his friends. (Though Wheatley had been unusual in bringing them back, after their successful debut in Forbidden Territory, not in another political spy adventure but in a supernatural horror story.)
But here is where he really begins to build his own alternative world, Wheatley Land, the endlessly self-referential literary theme park.
Not only does he bring back Sallust, blithely inserted in an entirely incompatible decade from his debut, but also pits him against another returning character from an entirely different and unconnected work: Lord Gavin Fortescue, last seen trying to buy out Hollywood in Such Power Is Dangerous. (And we also welcome Sir Pellinore Gwane-Cust, perhaps the greatest name conceived for a fictional character in the history of the written word, making his first appearance, in a chapter entitled 'Enter an Eminent Edwardian'.)
No reader could hope to keep up with such wild cross-referencing, so here are those faux-scholarly footnotes, so endearing a recurring feature in his later books, in which readers are directed towards the other relevant titles in the canon, complete with dates and publishers, like the citations in a scholarly thesis.
The decision to revive both characters is interesting (though Wheatley sadly makes us privy to nothing of his reasoning), Sallust for the reasons already given, and Fortescue because Such Power had been Wheatley's least favourite of his own works to date (more so even than The Fabulous Valley, which he felt was below par but at least distinguished by the thoroughness and research that the more knocked-off Such Power had lacked.)
Bizarrely, though the book begins by providing an entirely new backstory for Sallust (he's now a First World War hero, and Rudd, his landlord cum manservant, is his former batman) Wheatley still directs the reader to Black August for "further particulars of Gregory Sallust, Mr Rudd and his curious caravanserai in Gloucester Road".
But almost from the first this is a different Sallust as well as an uprooted one; he's markedly less cynical, opportunistic and self-motivated. In Black August he had been close to traitorous in his self-interest; here he is much more the classical Wheatley hero.
One wonders why, with so much altered, Wheatley bothered to call him Gregory Sallust, as so little of the original character remains. The only thing left now, really, of the original Sallust to distinguish him from any other Wheatley hero is his slightly greater physical ruthlessness.
At the beginning he attacks one villain with a broken bottle ("the ugliest weapon in the world") leaving him "clutch(ing) at the torn and bleeding muscle" of his arm, while the final discovery, on which the climax hinges, comes not as the result of serendipity or clever deduction but by the simple expedient of having Sallust torture the information out of the villain's chief henchman.
Having first suspended his quarry by the shoulder joints, he then threatens to burn his eyes out if he doesn't talk:
"Good God, sir, you can't!" exclaimed Rudd, suddenly paling. "It - it's fiendish."
Gregory swung on him. "You fool! My woman's life depends upon my loosening this brute's tongue and I mean to do it."
Rudd shuddered. "Sorry, sir. Looked at like that o' course you're right."
According to Drink and Ink, Rudd was based on "Lewis, my second cellarman when I was a wine merchant, of whom I was very fond", but here and there I thought I caught more than a stray echo of Lugg, manservant to Margery Allingham's detective Albert Campion:
They had hardly settled down when Rudd came in wheeling a dumb waiter with half the contents of a baker's shop spread out upon it.
"Mon dieu!" she exclaimed. "Do you expect me to eat all this - or have you a party of twenty people coming?"
"No, it's just Rudd," he laughed. "Rudd's fond of cakes and he gets all the ones that we can't eat."
"'Arternoon, Miss," Rudd said with a sheepish grin. "You won't take too much notice of Mr Gregory, I hope. He's always been a one what likes a leg pull."
Today, with intertextual hi-jinx so settled a feature of the postmodern literary landscape and no longer enough to surprise us, Contraband can perhaps be seen as one of Wheatley's least ambitious books.
The profusion of twists, interconnected subplots, and patented ante-climax, climax and post-climax formula with which he liked to dazzle readers are for the most part replaced with a straight arrow narrative and what most readers would by now be able to recognise as unabashed adherence to formula.
It's a short book, easily read in two or three evening settings, and for the first time in Wheatley I found myself less than carried away by it. In particular, I loved the ingenuity and charm of the smugglers passing secret messages using a code based on Ariel's songs from The Tempest, but I wasn't convinced, either that it would work, or that Sallust would have cracked it in the way he did. As an idea, it feels rushed. Equally typical of this corner cutting is a late sequence in which we and Gregory are brought up to speed on what has been happening in our absence by Wheatley's turning a large chunk of exposition into dialogue completely inappropriate for the character charged with delivering it. (If you know the novel, I'm thinking of Milly's update on what has been happening at Quex House after she finds the dead policemen.)
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that this was the beginning of a glittering career for Sallust, who would become one of Wheatley's most popular and enduring regulars over the coming decades. But when read - as I am reading it - in ignorance of those later books and with only Black August to compare it to, then this new adventure for a fresher, more upright, less dour and altogether more Robin Hood-like Gregory Sallust has to be counted a disappointment.
But this is all, of course, irrelevant.
Nobody bought this book and thought anything of the sort in 1936: they were just glad to get their hands on the latest Wheatley page-turner.
And it begins quite delightfully, with Sallust stumbling into an international espionage conspiracy by following an exotic woman from a Normandy casino, just twelve hours before he is supposed to return to England, purely in the hope of having his way with her.
The more he studied her, between making bets, the more the desire to do so strengthened in his mind. He could never bring himself to be anything but "uncle-ish" to "nice" girls, however attractive, and he barred respectable married women, except on rare occasions, on practical grounds. The aftermath of broken hearts and tear-stained faces with possible threats of being cited as co-respondent by an injured husband was, he considered, too heavy a price to pay. He preferred, when he took the plunge into an affair, a woman whom he could be reasonably certain was content to play his own game. Nothing too easy - in fact it was essential to his pleasure that she should move in luxurious surroundings and be distinguished of her kind, and so quite inaccessible except to men of personality even if they had the wealth which he did not. Then, when victory was achieved, they could laugh together over their ruses, delight in one another to the full and, when the time came as it surely must, part before satiation; a little sadly, perhaps, but as friends who enriched life's experience by a few more precious moments.
( I love that "except on rare occasions".)
And despite the fact that she almost gets him killed before he's even introduced himself, the minxy Miss Sabine Szenty fits the bill admirably, it would seem, being "no bread and butter miss but an adventuress, perhaps even a poule de luxe, one of those rare exotic women for the sake of whose caresses millionaires commit crazy follies and sometimes come to ruin, disgrace, and suicide".
Not only does she have the characteristic mysterious beauty of the Wheatley heroine ("the dark pencilled eyebrows which curved back like the two ends of a cupid's bow, the points rising almost to her temples, and the sleek black hair, parted on the side and flattened on the crown but spreading into a mass of tight jet curls behind her small pink ears"), she smells good too:
She seemed to radiate warmth by merely sitting beside him as they bumped over the pavé of the old streets back to the harbour, and a faint delicious odour, not so much a definite perfume as the scent of daily coiffured hair, freshly washed silks and a scrupulously tended person - the hallmarks of a superbly soignée woman filled the darkness of the taxi.
As who would not, it's not long before Sallust is displaying frankest adoration:
He bent above her. "The gods are being kind to me in my old age. Most beautiful women are either good, stupid or vicious. And you are the marvellous exception. Lovely as a goddess, clever as an Athenian and a bad hat like myself, yet one who still has decent feelings. I'm going to kiss the lips off you once we land in France."
If it's this Wheatley you're after, the unabashed master of heightened prose, you will not go unrewarded.
The Communist agitators are stirringly described as "red servants of evil", and there are the usual swipes at the higher literary critics: "Some people sneer at reading detective fiction but I don't," reflects Mrs Bird, the villain's housekeeper; "I could make a fortune writing thrillers if I weren't so darned lazy," opines Gregory. And there's the customary mention of friendly rivals, this time the Raffles stories. ("Good stories those," says Mrs Bird, "We don't get many like them now; more's the pity.")
Does anything frighten Sallust? According to Wheatley:
He possessed more courage than most men but one thing that really scared him was to see firearms in the hands of a woman. They were so much more likely to go off unexpectedly.
Amidst all the corn are two brilliant sequences in Wheatley's best manner. One is the heroes' near-death in treacherous quicksands (oddly, a feature of the previous Gavin Fortescue adventure too) in which Wheatley again displays his mastery of screw-turning slowed pace, so every second of their torment is stretched to nerve-snapping point.
The other plays the same trick but even more impressively, as Sallust, jumping from a plane for the first time, believes that his parachute ripcord has failed to work, and we share his terror as he plummets towards the earth. But he has simply not allowed for the slight time delay, and in fact the chute opens perfectly. The ordeal, which could have lasted only a few seconds, is stretched by Wheatley over two nail-biting pages. This is true literary sleight of hand.