Sunday, 18 November 2012

Penguin no. 1833: The S-Man
by Mark Caine

The success believes in the team. (His team.) The success believes in the loyalty of the team. (To him.) He believes that the team should stick together. (Until he wants to dissolve it.) He believes that the company comes first. (As long as he is first in the company.) He believes that if everyone can come up with just one more good idea, final success is inevitable. (For him.)

I wonder if the pseudonym Mark Caine was chosen for its biblical allusion. There is nothing here about killing a brother in any literal sense, but there is plenty about taking advantage of the decency of others. Mark Caine presents a view of society which has it partitioned into those with scruples, or inhibition barriers, and the S-Men.

But like Love Me Little, this is a Penguin in which the true authorship is concealed behind a pseudonym and an imaginary biography, although I suspect here that this is done less with any intention to deceive as much as a desire to hide the identities of the two authors, for the book is purposefully provocative and outrageous; it would seem even more so if it were published today.  It was first published in 1960 (and in 1962 as a Penguin), and I read that it was actually co-authored by Tom Maschler, the managing editor at the time of the publisher Jonathan Cape, and the novelist Frederic Raphael.

With its short sentences, its jargon, its exhorting and encouraging tone, and its pseudo-scientific approach, The S-Man is clearly written in the format of a self-help manual. Its subject is success and how to achieve it, so that it seeks to provide, at least to begin with, a kind of recipe: no matter the class into which you were born, and no matter how lacking in talent or knowledge you are, all that is required to achieve success is a willingness to follow the outlined steps (provided you are male). Success is defined here as the accumulation of a lot of money; any other type, such as social success or celebrity, doesn't count.

And of course, it is all ultimately unverifiable, for it is suggested that the very marker of having become successful is to disdain the source which provided the roadmap. As the book progresses, however, it seems less and less likely that any random man could really become an S-Man, despite his dedication to the goal. Once the discussion moves into analysing the nature of success, the putative S-Man has become the possessor of a set of innate but essential talents; by the very end of the book he is a God. The fact that there are two authors involved may explain the inconsistencies from chapter to chapter.

But I also doubt if consistency or coherence was a priority, for this is clearly a satire, although the intended target is not altogether clear. Perhaps it is a parody of self help books, perhaps a comment on the rise of the ambitious working-class man, or perhaps the target is academic prose: there are plenty of specious arguments to show that duplicity can be viewed as integrity, that the truth is relative, and that every statement can be justified if you sufficiently narrow your focus. And then occasionally there are some interesting observations on how ordinary honest people, those still inhibited by their decency, will willingly conspire in their own deception, and will help to ensure the success of the S-Man.

So how do you become a success? Mark Caine suggests it is by taking a zig-zag path to the top, jettisoning principles and friends and colleagues at each turn, by taking credit for the work of others, by making promises you have no intention of keeping, by buying favours, and so on. There is no such thing as an S-Woman, however, because 'women are things' which encourage a man to seek success; they do not seek success in their own right. "The S-Man is interested [...] in their acquisition, if only because of their effect on others. He does not make the mistake of treating [women] as things valuable in themselves."

I kept on reading because I was intrigued by how they would take this one simple idea and stretch it out to fill an entire book. They weren't completely successful for although the book is littered with entertaining aphorisms and clever illustrations of their argument, there are simply too many topics and chapters, and very many exceedingly dull pages. At 188 pages it was far too long, and it was a struggle to read the book all the way to the end.

And never once is it even hinted that all this is outrageous, except maybe in their chosen pseudonym.

4 comments:

  1. I used to work for Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape in the 70s, and edited Frederic Raphael. Maschler was a great, great publisher, though terrifying and infuriating to work for. His memoir was woeful, though - a huge opportunity missed.

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  2. Karyn, I always enjoy reading your vintage Penguin reviews, and often I think I would like to read the book, because you make them sound so interesting. But on this occasion I feel glad you've read it - so I don't have to!

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  3. One of those books I think I remember reading perhaps twenty-five years ago, but have no specific memory of...

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  4. I first read this book when I was in my teens and when I found my copy a couple of decades later, I reread the blurb which actually says that it is a satire of "success" manuals. A satire?!! I had devoured every page, and I'm ashamed to say, followed a lot of its advice! Nonetheless my life turned out OK although it feels a bit like having used Moby-Dick to learn fishing......

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