Friday, 13 July 2012

Penguin no. 2008: The Flaw in the Crystal
by Godfrey Smith

'I often wonder how the world's intellectuals (the very name is an offence) can express such affection and concern for the common people when they know so little about them. How can they presume to spend their money, lick their wounds, wipe their noses for them? They are pained when the common people show no signs of improvement; no desire to hear Brahms rather than Gershwin; no inclination to join folk-dancing classes instead of going to see Blackpool wallop spurs; no preference for a glass of vin rouge over a pint of mixed; no improvement at all. It must be very disheartening. But really, why should they improve? Why can't they be left with what they genuinely love and understand? '

In a newspaper article published in The Sunday Times in 1995*, Godfrey Smith described his novel as a 'sub-Buchan thriller based loosely on the Burgess-Maclean case.' I don't think I would describe it as a thriller, but it is a book about espionage and spying, with a focus on the psychological impact, and a grounding in the more mundane and bureaucratic aspects of the profession. Excitement and danger seem to be for the select few chosen for an overseas assignment. Roger Meredith, on the other hand, is based in London. He is a Civil Servant working for 'The Office', and he seems to view his work as tedious and ineffective. It is all drafting reports and attending meetings, and answering questions raised by the Minister. There is no sense of urgency, and nothing seems to happen very quickly.

And then he is given an assignment, although one without any danger: he is to befriend Graham Several and keep him under observation, and over time he is to analyse his character. The interest is in Several's reliability and trustworthiness: is he the right man to be sent overseas on an unknown and possibly dangerous mission integral to the country's security? Meredith is briefed to try and find 'the flaw in the crystal', the subtle signs which may suggest that Several is not the right man for the task. Agents have proved disappointing in the past, and this time the Minister wants certainty; he needs to know that the government is relying on a man of unwavering integrity. Several will be watched unaware for months for the slightest hint that he too has a price, or an enthusiasm for the other side.

But Several is an usual man, and if the book has a flaw, I think it is in this character; he is simply too exceptional to be believable. There seems no limit to his capabilities; he excels in everything he attempts. He is the editor of a literary magazine, a technical genius, a surviving WW2 pilot, and he is wealthy, charming, even-tempered and generous. He can out-drink and out-gamble all companions, and is happy to take advantage of his never-failing appeal to women. And yet he is unaffected by it all. He can drink while always seeming sober; remain awake all night and yet looked refreshed; and with all this good fortune and the possession of these extensive talents he shows no signs of vanity, conceit, ambition, or self-obsession. He is like a man who throws heads with every turn.

To be required to spy on such a man is a source of torment to Meredith. With his quiet determination to live life on his own terms and according to his own code, Several is the most interesting person Meredith has known, and all he aspires to be. To be constantly aware that their friendship is founded on a deception, and a deception which must eventually be revealed, troubles him, as does the knowledge that his assessment may consign Several to an uncertain and perilous future. But this is the nature of intelligence work: the country's interest takes precedence over the individual's.

This was one of two first novels signed to the publisher Victor Gollancz in 1954; the other was Lucky Jim. The immediate success of Kingsley Amis's novel brought with it the opportunity to review, and one of the first books Amis reviewed was The Flaw in the Crystal. He was critical of the novel, urging (in Godfrey Smith's words*) 'the author to go out and have a look at the real world, which he had clearly not done so far.'

But Amis and Smith were describing very different worlds. Lucky Jim is set in a provincial town and its protagonist romanticises London and all it has to offer. But the London described in this book is an isolating place, seemingly peopled by individuals with their glory days behind them; by older men who have never quite fulfilled their potential; by younger men who have survived the war and will never be tested to that extent again. And everywhere there are reminders of loss, in the absences of school friends and children who didn't survive.

Kingsley Amis's suggestion seems a catchy line that doesn't quite ring true. In fact, what impressed me more than anything in this novel was the insight the author had into the motives and actions of others, which seemed remarkable in someone so young. In this story he analyses loyalty, treachery and spying in a variety of relationships, and at all levels of Society, from the inept and inaccurate scribblings of gossip columnists, to the instinct for revenge of the spurned lover, and to the much higher stakes of treason. The tone is sombre and cynical, but it provided an interesting view of London life in the years after the war as society was transforming. There seemed an awareness and a regret that in the transition something was being lost.


* The Sunday Times article was published 29 October 1995. I accessed it through Factiva, but couldn't locate a publicly accessible version.

11 comments:

  1. Great review! Oddly enough, I saw a copy of this in my local Oxfam charity bookstore last week and was a little undecided. Your review sent me back there today to buy it!

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    1. Just out of interest, which Oxfam? (I'm always keen to know who stocks them, for when I plan my next trip to the UK). I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

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    2. In Ipswich, which is near me. They have the odd one or two Penguins that turn up in their Literature section. If there are any you are particularly after let me know and I can keep an eye out!

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  2. Several sounds like he could have been based on Alan Ross: handsome ladies man, editor of the very literary London Magazine, poet, heroic WW2 vet, expert writer on cricket, remarkable alcoholic capacity...

    http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Books/Pix/pictures/2009/11/19/1258643749388/alan-ross-editor-of-londo-001.jpg

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    1. Thanks, Erik. There is always the suspicion when you read these books from the past that a portrait is being sketched of someone recognisable to a contemporary audience, but not to someone reading 60 years later, so it was very interesting to read about Alan Ross. Even more interesting was that Several had some characteristics which Wikipedia specifically mentioned that Ross lacked: an aptitude for Mathematics, a talent for poetry, RAF rather than RN. Perhaps that is exactly how you would muddy the waters.

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    2. Ross lacked poetic talent? Slander! He wrote several books of poetry and his more intelligent contemporaries thought quite highly of it.

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    3. Yes I phrased that terribly - Several had the mathematical ability Ross lacked, and lacked the poetic talent Ross had.

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  3. I love finding out about these otherwise obscure books - never heard of this one but it is certainly intriguing and unlike what I would normally read. Thanks for the review.

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    1. Thanks Jeremy, that really is the delightful aspect of collecting Penguins. You can randomly choose one and know they've published the best of what was available at the time. (And just in case you're unaware: the Save the Children book sale at UWA starts 5pm Fri 17th August)

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    2. How could I forget!?

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  4. Try "Caviar" and "The Business of Loving", both by Godfrey Smith. The latter was also published by Penguin

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