June 25, 2009

Rex Warner: The Aerodrome

Posted in Warner Rex at 8:00 am by John Self

When Vintage Books relaunched their previously elegant Classics line a couple of years ago, they adopted the asinine branding practice of replacing the author’s forename on the cover with the word Vintage. Irritating yes, but also baffling when applied to writers who aren’t household (sur)names, such as Rex Warner. The Aerodrome was one of the first titles they issued in the new design, which by some form of logic I presumed that meant they thought it was one of the very best. Certainly it has its followers: Anthony Burgess named it as one of the 99 best novels written between 1939 and 1984.

Rex Warner: The Aerodrome

The Aerodrome (1941) is subtitled A Love Story, though if one had to define it, sci-fi and dystopia would come to mind sooner. It’s set in a parallel England in the mid-20th century, where the war is not between the Nazis and the British but is internal, between order and chaos. It’s a singular book, an odd one, and about the best I can say for it is that I’m glad I read it because now I don’t need to wonder what it’s like any more.

Few, I think, would suggest that The Aerodrome is elegantly written. The first quarter of the book features three dramatic developments, each dispatched about as implausibly as could be: if you’ve had enough of master criminals detailing their plans by soliloquy, how about Warner’s variation, where a rector delivers a twelve-page murder confession to God, handily in earshot of his wife and adopted son? (Later, another character expires while making a deathbed revelation.) Aside from this carefree approach to credibility, there is sheer clumsiness (“I had been taking things very much too much for granted”) and a muddy willingness to use one sentence where two or three would be more welcome:

It was not until the end of the meal that there was made to me by those whom, up to now, I had assumed to be my parents a disclosure important enough to unsettle the whole basis of my thoughts and feelings; and it was the Flight-Lieutenant who, more than any other of those present, had seemed to understand how important to me this disclosure was, even though all his views on the subject were, I could see at once, wholly different from my own.

Nonetheless there is a canniness at work, as Warner confounds the reader’s expectations by introducing us to a seemingly typical English village, and only later making references to the aerodrome which will take over the villagers’ lives, with its “large hangars at the top of the hill curved in a way so like the natural roundness of this land, and yet in its perfect regularity so unlike.” There is a wonderful scene where the Air Vice-Marshal of the air force behaves abominably at a funeral, but the narrator, Roy, nonetheless joins the air force largely as a replacement for the security he has lost with the death of his father.

Yet it remains a curious and uneven book, where the muddy prose tends to block out any sense of development, and then the narrator Roy switches allegiances with head-spinning speed. The only evidence we have for Roy’s sudden conversion to the cause of the aerodrome are the rambling rants by the Air Vice-Marshal, who claims the air force and its cleanliness and purity as an evolutionary step ahead of the village it seeks to occupy and correct:

Please put [your parents and your homes] out of your minds directly. For good or evil you are yourselves, poised for a brief and dazzling flash of time between two annihilations. Reflect, please, that “parenthood”, “ownership”, “locality” are the words of those who stick in the mud of the past to form the fresh deposit of the future. And so is “marriage”. Those words are without wings. I do not care to hear an airman use them.

The threat from the aerodrome remains undefined, bar one or two shocking incidents. This nebulous sense of peril is apt enough – the reader can read into it at will – but it also feels like a lack of nerve on Warner’s part. He claims Kafka as an influence (a common claim: who doesn’t?) but, as Michael Moorcock points out in his introduction, there’s not much evidence of this in The Aerodrome. The analogy of the story is with fascism: the sloppy, deceptive, incestuous village is to be preferred to the clinical, orderly, dictatorial aerodrome, “designed to stifle life which, however misused, was richer in everything but determination.”

Moorcock’s introduction – more interesting to me than the novel itself – emphasises that The Aerodrome is “very evidently a novel of ideas” (though I’m not sure where he gets the plural from), and if that means there is not much consideration given to characters or story, then he’s got that spot on. There are plot points set up to engage the reader, and they are resolved, but the impression given is that Warner didn’t set much store by them, that they are little more than bait. I was put in mind of the fascinatingly sterile novels of J.G. Ballard – by no coincidence a Warner fan, according to the back cover of this edition. It has that same sense of promise, originality, frustration and disappointment. Moorcock also describes The Aerodrome as “Warner’s masterpiece” – bloody hell, are you sure? Not so much Vintage Warner, then, as Corked.

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21 Comments »

  1. Sam Jordison said,

    Hmmm… Can’t argue with you about the prose and the nuts and bolts… But for me it was one of those novels where the ideas, aesthetics (that giant aerodrome overwhelming the quaint village. those uniforms, etc), intriguing plot and general uneasy oddness were strong enough to make up for such faults. Reading it wasn’t always a pleasure, but I remain glad I did so. And not just because I don’t have to again…

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Sam. As always when I respond negatively to a book, I vaguely feel that I’ve been a bit harsh, but I can only give my honest response at the time. Some books do improve in memory but I doubt I’ll be devoting much more thought to this one. My main problem was that the things you mention – the ideas, the aesthetics, the oddness – were really best expressed in the blurb or the introduction, and not terribly obvious within the book itself.

    I see that Warner was a bit of a renaissance man – poet, classicist, translator. A Rex of all trades…

  3. Robert Hanks said,

    I’m also pro-Warner: haven’t read The Aerodrome for, ooh, at least 15 years, but I recall it being pretty good, including the prose – a dry oddity, I’ll admit, not unlike the novels of Nigel Dennis; you have to be in the right frame of mind. Maybe I need to re-read and find out whether it stands up to scrutiny. (BTW, there was a decentish BBC dramatisation years and years ago, with Peter Firth.)

    As you say, a Renaissance man – I’ve come across him most often through his Penguin Classics translations, which include Plutarch, Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War; he also did a version of Greek myth, Men and Gods, which the NYRB has reissued as one of its classics, with illustrations by Edward Gorey.

  4. Don’t feel badly about the review, for me it was not only well done but both timely and, even more important, time-saving. If I can explain…

    My description (where you wondered about “sci-fi” or “dystopia”) of this kind of work is “speculative” fiction — set in the future (often after a some drastic event), the central idea (usually only one) is the conflict between order/chaos, state/individual, fascism/democracy, Between black and white in the literary sense. I have a personal aversion to the genre, finding that while I might personally agree with the author’s point of view the unilateral nature of the way it is articulated causes my “liberal” nature to start taking the other side — and I find myself supporting some dreadful things that the rational side totally disagrees with, simply because of the form. And to top it off, for the most part (as I think in this case, but not always) the writing is not very good.

    Some readers (Sam and Robert offer articulate alternatives) obviously don’t share my bias and quite appreciate the genre. The time-saving part of your review comes from the fact that reader friends have been urging me to try Infinite Jest and Margaret Atwood’s upcoming novel (both of which fit my “speculative” fiction definition) and I have been feeling guilty about exercising my bias by not reading either.

    Your articulate summation of this book (which I had never heard of) was exactly what I needed — why should I go through the angst of reading something from a genre I don’t like, regardless of what others think of it?

    Many thanks. You were not harsh at all, you were helpful.

  5. Robert Hanks said,

    I’m not going to try to change Kevin’s mind about Rex Warner, but just wanted to note that when a book makes you support ideas you would usually find repellent, it’s pulled off something rather impressive.

    I’m reminded, obliquely, of a review I read of Mamet’s Oleanna (about a male academic accused of sexual harassment by a female student), which said that while Mamet was clearly on the man’s side, the play, ironically, ended up pushing the reviewer towards the woman’s point of view: I wondered why, if the play pushed him one way, he was so certain it was trying to push him the other.

  6. Sorry, Robert, I can’t agree that the result is “rather impressive”. If someone wrote a book saying Margaret Thatcher was a dreadful Prime Minister, because she was a woman, I would have to defend Thatcher, whom I do think was a dreadful Prime Minister. That is no reflection of the author pulling off something impressive — it would just mean that he/she was dead wrong. I am not accusing Warner (whom I haven’t read) or the other authors I mentioned of something that gross, but bad arguments are bad arguments.

  7. Robert Hanks said,

    I think that’s a false analogy: for one thing, you’d be under no obligation to defend Thatcher whatsoever – you could say “She was indeed dreadful, but I think you have mistaken the reasons.” A book that genuinely did force you into a corner where you were defending her would surely have done something a bit cleverer than you’re making out.

    And I suppose I think the whole point of the novel is to expand and exploit our sympathies – to make us identify with people we’d normally avoid, agree with propositions we’d rather not. What I remember liking about The Aerodrome, apart from general weirdness, was that it forced you to feel the attraction of authority; primitive village life might be richer, but it’s also squalid and inward-looking.

  8. JRSM said,

    I think I’m with Robert Hanks on this one: despite its definite deficits, this book did stay with me (most especially the peculiar atmosphere). Though I’ve not read any other Warner, I must admit. I see that a whole bunch of his other work is in the Faber Finds list.

    A funky alternative cover from 1968: http://www.trashfiction.co.uk/aerodrome.jpg

  9. Let’s say I agree with your second paragraph, Robert — when the author avoids black and white and presents instead different greys (as you describe your reaction to this book and, from your earlier response, as Mamet does in Oleanna if my memory of the production I saw 15 years ago is accurate), then you do have worthwhile work. Another successful example in the speculative fiction genre would be Cloud Atlas, from my point of view.

  10. Tom C said,

    I’ve never heard of Warner but your review suggests to me that this will not be high on my reading list. The Vintage Warner thing looks like a company – as though Random House are now owned by a film company (perhaps they are).

    Very helpful review as always.

  11. Interesting comparison with Ballard, I’m quite fond of him, but he too is a question of mood and aesthetics outweigh other considerations such as plausibility or indeed plot.

    A perhaps for me this one, a recommendation by Moorcock is a double edged thing. His Colonel Pyat novels are tremendously well written (well, the one I’ve read so far is), his fantasy works before he moved over to literary fiction and for which he became famous are – well – generously remembered let’s say. A writer of real talent, but also with a prodigous output that much oustripped that talent.

  12. JRSM said,

    Max is spot-on with regard to Moorcock. Especially to be avoided his his book where the members of awful 1970s band Hawkwind club together to save a post-apocalyptic Earth.

  13. John Self said,

    Hawkwind club together to save a post-apocalyptic Earth

    :lol:

    I’ve never had much interest in reading Moorcock anyway, probably because he looks to be (a) insanely prolific, and (b) insane. Mother London is one that crops up from time to time in polite discussion, but not for very long.

    Robert, I know what you mean by thinking the opposite of what you think the author wants you to think (I think), but I must admit the only times I’ve come across this is when I’m pretty sure I am thinking the opposite of what the author wants me to think, and there’s no sophistry involved. For example, Joseph O’Connor’s The Star of the Sea so overloaded the reader with tragedy upon tragedy in its opening chapters (intending, I believe, to open eyes to the horrors of the Irish famine), that I ended up viewing it as some kind of deranged, over-the-top spoof, unintentionally comic. I had similar thoughts on the put-upon couple in T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain; I’m sure Boyle intended us to sympathise with their predicament as luckless immigrants (as I did: at first), but the sheer range of disaster that befell them had me in the end laughing my socks off.

  14. Moorcock’s Pyat quartet looks very good, I’ve read the first – Byzantium Endures – and thoroughly enjoyed it. Good, intelligent, literary fiction and quite different to most of his output. Of course, it’s: (a) not fantasy; and (b) not from his prolific period, much of which was drug fuelled (as he now freely admits).

    He did write some good fantasy, the difficulty is he wrote much more bad fantasy, and it can take a while to work out which is which. His Oswald Bastable tales are thoroughly enjoyable though, as was The War Hound and the World’s Pain, other than those I’m less certain (he produced so much I start forgetting which are which). I genuinely can’t remember how good the stuff he’s actually famous for, Elric et al, is, much of it was terrible though. He’s odd in being famous for what are often his worst works, and hardly known at all for his best ones.

  15. obooki said,

    Must have finished this about a month before you (though I did have a gap of six months in the middle when I got bored). I don’t think The Aerodrome really is a dystopian novel at all – or, like most dystopian novels, it’s really about the present: here, specifically Nazi ideology and the nature of its appeal to people. – Although it’s not mentioned, I really did get the sense that this novel was located during the second world war – why else was the air force so important / the novel written during the battle of britain? – And a strange sense too that Warner is suggested that the state of total war – the military taking command within Britain during the second world war – was akin to Nazism.

    Also – whom I don’t think you mentioned – the character of the Flight Lieutenant fascinated me: – a man who starts off having seemingly achieved the Nazi ideal of cutting himself off from an accepted morality (the whole Superman nonsense the Nazis borrowed from Nietzsche), but who gradually loses his self-assurance and ultimately rejects The Aerodrome. – Yeah, just as the Nazis ultimately found you couldn’t cut people away from their weak Christian morality.

    On the other hand, yes: – better to have read than still to be reading.

  16. Robert Hanks said,

    I’ve been meaning to get back to the conversation, but I’ve been busy. A few points:

    1) Obooki – I don’t agree with all of it, but that’s the shrewdest analysis of the book we’ve had so far.

    2) John – I haven’t read Joseph O’Connor, so should probably stay shtum, but there is a venerable Irish tradition of piling up misery to the point of hilarity, which goes back at least as far as Synge and has been carried on by Martin McDonagh. Could it be…? I only raise the possibility because I’ve had the experience a number of times of re-reading a book and realising that what I had taken in deadly earnest was actually ironic and funny.

    On the other hand, I’ve also had repeatedly the experience of laughing at books where nobody else can see the ghost of a joke (also, inappropriate giggling at funerals, which I try to pass off as the hysteria of grief).

    3) Kevin – My original comment, about it being impressive if a novel forces you to think something you don’t want to, was meant mostly (not entirely) as a tease. The substantial point is that there are very few novels – even really bad ones – that can be reduced entirely to a one-sided set of propositions with which you can agree or disagree, and The Aerodrome isn’t one of them. Also, I still can’t see why you’d have to defend Thatcher.

    4) Kevin again – You shouldn’t wipe out an entire genre so easily: there are plenty of novels that fit your “speculative” framework that are really well written and nothing like as simplistic as you make out.

    5) No, I can’t be doing with Moorcock either.

  17. صور said,

    I think I’m with Robert Hanks on this one: despite its definite deficits, this book did stay with me (most especially the peculiar atmosphere). Though I’ve not read any other Warner, I must admit. I see that a whole bunch of his other work is in the Faber Finds list

  18. JRSM said,

    Why is that strange person re-posting my comments?

  19. John Self said,

    Hm, looks like a spammer to me, JRSM. I was away for the last few days and unable to remove it as I normally would. By way of belated punishment, I’ve removed his link. That’ll teach him.

  20. Richard McDonough said,

    Read it when I was a young kid, maybe 12? Liked it then and thought f it today when photographing a dirigible hanger!

  21. Bernard Morris said,

    I have just swtarted watching the story and I confess to being rather lost.This purports to be England and I presume that the aerodrome is the Royal Air Force but the uniforms are definitely not RAF and the RAF did not have T-33 Shooting Star aircraft. In fact the story does not make any sense.


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