18th January 2009
How useful is a work of fiction as a historical source? It’s difficult enough to work out how accurate supposedly factual accounts are, especially if they were written long after the events they describe. Fiction doesn’t even claim to be an accurate record of “how it really was.” On the other hand, the atmosphere of a place, and the thoughts and feelings of the people who were there, can sometimes emerge more strongly from fiction, than from official documents or other factual sources, in which much may be assumed, but never expressed directly and therefore remains hidden.
John Bayley is now best known now as the husband of Iris Murdoch and author of the best-selling books 'Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch', and 'Elegy for Iris', in which he told the story of her decline in old age due to Alzheimer’s Disease. He is also a distinguished literary critic, fellow of New College Oxford and from 1974-1992 was Warton Professor of English at Oxford University.
'In Another Country', was his first, and for a long time his only, novel. It was published in 1955 and reissued by Oxford Univeristy Press as a "Twentieth Century Classic" in 1986. The novel is set in Germany in 1945 in "the first cold winter of peace" and is based on John Bayley’s own experiences there, as a young officer at the end of the war.
I am no literary critic, but the book is clearly well written. In the introduction to the 1986 edition, A N Wilson, who was taught by John Bayley at Oxford and later wrote his own biography of Iris Murdoch, quoted the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, speaking with “a most distinguished and personalized stammer, which caused her voice to seize up suddenly on key words” once asking him:
“‘Have you read John’s novel?’
‘Well it’s very …’
‘Good’ I clumsily prompted her again
‘It’s quite brilliant”’. She said sharply, as if I had contradicted her. ‘It is a great pity that he has never written any more.’”
The title of the book comes from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, (act 4, scene 1). The relevant passage is:
Barnadine: Thou hast committed …
Barabas: Fornication? But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.
A girl does die in the book, though not, perhaps, the one the reader expects.
This is not the place to re-tell the story of the novel. Suffice it to say that the hero is Oliver Childers, a young lieutenant in the British military forces in Germany. John Bayley himself worked in T-Force, an exclusive unit with the job of identifying German scientists who could be useful to Britain at the end of the war. The fictional hero of the book appears to do something very similar, but his work is of no concern at all to Oliver, and is described in the book as follows:
“P(I)15 was chiefly engaged in reporting on the condition and prospects of the local industries which had survived bombardment. More ambitiously and in collaboration with other units that bore the code P, it sometimes set about the absorption of a technician, a process, or a whole plant, whose services were coveted back in England. But such undertakings were obscure and protracted, dating from a past too remote for the longest memory of the present staff: even the Colonel, who had been in charge nearly four months, could not remember beginning or finishing anything of this kind. What the unit did was ultimately mysterious to itself, but it was a tranquil mystery - no one yearned to behold the completed pattern, the larger meaning. Like conveyor-belt workers who attend their passing bits and pieces and remain indifferent to the nature of the final product, the personnel of P(I) 15 dealt with their daily stint of letters, files and samples, and looked no further. ”
Germany appears as almost a make-believe place, in the interlude between the war and his inevitable return to England:
“But Germany was like the films, or a story about exposure in lifeboats or thirst in the desert – neither mind nor body really believed it. Perhaps it was bad for you not to believe. Perhaps they were laying up trouble for themselves at home. As he talked with his colleagues Oliver had often wondered about that, and half dreaded his approaching demobilisation.”
The main theme of the book is how the various people in the unit related to each other, on a personal basis, and Oliver’s own relationship with Liese, a young German woman. As with all good novels, it can be interpreted in different ways and works on many levels, but above all, it seemed to me, it describes one (fictional) young man’s attempt to make sense of his life, and what to do next. After various events in Germany, some of which involve him directly, some indirectly, some quite dramatic, but described with great understatement, he returns to his parents' suburban house in England and half-heartedly tries to find a job.
“Life was all before him – but that was just the trouble.”
He loses his job, but keeps the girl, and the book ends with an uncertain future ahead of him.
“‘Which way do we go?’
Oliver drew a deep breath. ‘We’ll decide that when we get outside,’ he said firmly.”
In summary, it seems to me, John Bayley’s novel, In Another Country, is a useful reminder to historians that, for some young British men in Germany at the end of the war, the work they did was insignificant and of little concern. In stark contrast with the high and noble claims of senior officers, (referred to in previous posts on this blog), that what they were doing was “fighting a battle to save the soul of Germany”, these young men were concerned, above all, with their own personal relationships with friends, colleagues and sometimes, lovers, how they could re-build their lives at the end of the war and what would happen to them when they got home.
John Bayley, In Another Country, first published by Constable & Co, 1955. Republished by Oxford University Press, 1986, with an introduction by A N Wilson
For two other, completely different and contrasting descriptions of T-Force, see:
Tom Bower, The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Battle for the Spoils and Secrets of Nazi Germany, (Paladin, 1988) (First Published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 1987)