Books: The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin |
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The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin

‘He is, in fact,’ reads the standard Biographical Note in Nigel Balchin’s publicity file at Collins, ‘in many ways a survival of the days before specialisation became a fetish, and everybody had to be given a convenient label.’ There are good reasons for thinking that Balchin wrote this Note himself. The blurbish prose might lack his characteristic rhythm, but the pride in his own versatility is unmistakable. ‘To be unlabellable in the modern world’, the Note concludes, ‘is rare enough to be interesting.’ In his time Balchin did manage to dodge most labels, but a fatal one sought him out, applied itself lovingly, and stuck. He was called a brilliant popular novelist.

To be a brilliant popular novelist rather than a pedestrian serious one—to be glittering thin rather than dull solid—implies an impermeable surface, a level below which aesthetic interest does not run. But it seems to me that Balchin is aesthetically interesting in the last analysis as well as the first, and that his reputation ought not to be allowed to remain in its present state of unfocussed semi-respectability. In many ways he is the missing writer of the Forties. The intense illumination of his fame made him a ghost while he was still alive. Often by his admirers, and on a few embarrassing occasions by himself, his intelligibility was used as a stick to beat the highbrows with. In such circumstances it might well have appeared philistine to contend that his clarity had shown certain kinds of artistic ambition to be unfruitful. But there is no reason to be afraid of that imputation now. Not only is Balchin still widely read, but the conflict between the art novel and the top-flight popular novel can now more easily be seen to be permanent. There ought no longer to be any question of either competitor suppressing the other. A more useful question to ask is whether the dialectic between them, far from being inimical to culture, is not essential to it.

The peak of Balchin’s success, and of his critical acceptability as a writer of importance, lay in the War period. Before and after, his career leads up to that long moment and then away. He was born in 1908 and spent the years 1919-27 at Dauntsey’s School, where he demonstrated his innate omnicompetence by becoming Captain of Cricket, Hockey, Rugby and the School itself. At Cambridge he was a Natural Sciences Exhibitioner and Prizeman in Peterhouse, contriving to play county cricket while still an undergraduate. His published biographical sketches mention an Honours degree but don’t specify the class. In the Biographical Note in his publisher’s files the words First Class are scratched out—the only words apart from his first wife’s name to be eliminated from the text. Balchin took pride in not being an ‘academic’ (his adjective) scientist: on leaving Cambridge he became an industrial consultant on the staff of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, and his literary interests for ever afterwards ran a parallel course with non-literary ones—a course rare in Britain, and one by which Balchin obviously set great, if sometimes defensive, store. He was married in 1933: the marriage produced three children, all daughters, and lasted until the end of the Forties. Its dissolution at the beginning of the Fifties was to be a turning point, as far as one can tell, in his career. Certainly nothing was the same after that.

While things were going well, though, they went very well. As a contributor to Punch in the early Thirties Balchin wrote satirical sketches about industry, under the name of Mark Spade. They were collected into books (How to Run a Bassoon Factory and Business for Pleasure)and gained some reputation. During all this pre-war period his private business connections seem to have been with Rowntrees—a relationship he tended to soft-pedal in future interviews. He also wrote three barely noticed novels.

Balchin was prosperous, but hardly exploring his full potential. The War changed that overnight. He entered it as a Civil Servant, spending two years at the Ministry of Food. His experiences at the Ministry provided the background for his novel Darkness Falls From the Air, which came out in 1942 and was a distinct critical success. Like most of Balchin’s better-known novels this one now goes on selling in Pan paperback, but even when you ignore the later Pan figures, the earlier sales—in Collins hardback, service editions, and so on—are impressive enough. Darkness Falls From the Air did 14,000 hard-back and at least 99,000 in cheap editions up until the late Fifties. The Balchin pattern was established: critical success and big sales all rolled into one.

From the Ministry of Food Balchin went as an officer into the department of the Scientific Adviser to the Army Council. The job, back-room and hush-hush, by all accounts brought the very best out of him. A wartime friend, Denis McMahon, recalled in his obituary for Balchin how the new recruit took over instruction in chemical warfare within a week of arriving to train for it, and was being consulted by the commander of his unit within the first fortnight. Balchin apparently pioneered the use of punched cards and counter-sorter machines in personnel selection, discrediting brass-hat opposition in just the sort of economically staged scene that crops up in his novels. Balchin, said McMahon, was ‘the most intelligently effective and effectively intelligent man I have met.’ With due allowances for exaggeration, there can’t be any doubt that Balchin was a gifted logistical thinker—a natural critical path analyst with a remarkable capacity for absorbing the detail of new fields. He dealt in realities, the art of the possible. The test was relevance.

During the early part of this period, in 1943, Balchin published his smash-hit novel The Small Back Room. Very few thrillers have ever been so praised. His technique of presenting the problems of his characters against the background of working out a scientific puzzle, and then presenting all that against the background of the war itself, was commended as the sort of complexity that ordinary, intelligent people could understand and appreciate. The book sold 34,000 in hardback and at least 337,000 in cheap editions over the next fifteen years and of course goes on selling still.

Balchin finished the War as a Brigadier, and in the year of victory brought out the novel which is most often identified with his name, Mine Own Executioner. For background material, this novel, although set at the end of the War, reverts to his pre-war experience as a psychologist, and one might think that it had therefore broken free from its author’s personal chronology: another novel, A Sort of Traitors, was apparently planned that year (it was to be published in 1949) and would have fitted the pattern better. But on second thoughts one can see that Mine Own Executioner might have a lot to do with Balchin’s crisis of occupation, as the artificial circumstances which alone could plumb his talents came to an end. For the moment, though, success—his biggest ever. The book sold 54,000 in hardback alone, a sale that was more than just a last flare of the wartime reconciliation between Fiction and the Reading Public. The book went on doing good business, and by 1953 had sold 250,000 copies in paperback.

The three wartime novels were built to an artless-looking, highly refined formula of naturalistic conflict taking place within a thriller plot. With Balchin’s first post-war book the pattern broke, and his commercial success broke with it. Lord, I Was Afraid is a period book in a way that the wartime books are not. Written in play form, it is the kind of art-conscious, angst-ridden Forties novel that really belongs to the Thirties, as if V.E. Day had dumped the author back into the same set of questions he had left behind in 1939. Probably this air of atavism has more to do with the Experimental lay-out than with anything else, in the same way that Philip Toynbee’s early books can’t help reminding you of The Dog Beneath the Skin. There is a twenty-year continuity of that kind of writing which goes right through the war as if it wasn’t there. Lord, I Was Afraid sold 11,000 in hardback, and the sales in cheap edition were apparently negligible.

Balchin was still leading a multiple life but it was necessarily less defined than in wartime. His fiction, however, achieved—perhaps in compensation—a sharp personal focus when he published The Borgia Testament in 1948. Balchin’s fascination with Cesare Borgia reveals as much about his mind as the same fascination revealed about Machiavelli’s, and The Borgia Testament is by no means an unworthy adjunct to The Prince. For Balchin, feeling kinship with Cesare wouldn’t necessarily have entailed conceit: Cesare’s unsentimental appreciation of what needed to be done in given circumstances was exactly the power which Balchin had good reason to think he possessed to an unusual degree. And again like Machiavelli, Balchin couldn’t help pondering the question of how Cesare’s career was cut short. Machiavelli ascribes it to ill fortune. Balchin talks of failing purpose. This is the enduring problem of Cesare’s life-story and Balchin didn’t really have a solution for it—which, for a man accustomed to having solutions for everything, is a revealing concession in itself. The book is of interest on several levels. Doubtless it was on the straight narrative level that it attracted its 40,000 buyers for the hardback edition.

After that, Balchin settled down to a steady 36,000 hardback sales for novel after novel. Presumably there was a loyal audience who bought every new Balchin as a matter of course. In that event A Sort of Traitors, which came out in 1949, must have seemed a welcome return to the wartime formula. This time it was the Cold War, but the layer-cake was stacked in the same old reliable way, conflict on top of puzzle on top of background. It was about here that the big change came in Balchin’s life. His marriage broke up.

In real life, the parting was apparently a civilized matter, and those concerned were soon friends: the ex-Mrs. Balchin married the artist Michael Ayrton, and Balchin also married again. Artistically, however, it can only be said that Balchin reacted with a thinly disguised cry of self-assertion. A Way Through The Wood, published in 1951, is the key to his conception of himself as a social, sexual human being. It illuminates the personal element of all the books before and after. [Spotting the unusual psychological depth of an authorial crisis, Julian Fellowes, more than fifty years later, made this novel the basis of his screenplay for a stunning directorial debut, Separate Lies — C.J., 2006]

Sundry Creditors came next, in 1953. As a novel about industry it is irreproachable: this is the way Lord Snow would write about such matters if he had Balchin’s sheer deftness of hand. Most of the good critics were agreed, however, that the book’s perfection of surface entailed a certain programmatic sketchiness in the characterization, major as well as minor. A collection of short stories, Last Recollections of My Uncle Charles, followed in 1954 and proved, among other things, that collections of short stories don’t make it as merchandise. Balchin’s by-now standard 30,000-plus sales dropped by two thirds. He climbed back to his usual level with The Fall of the Sparrow in 1955. This was another of the psychology novels, and this time it covered a long time-scale, so that the main characters were traced right through the war and out the other side. In some ways it is the old, reliably marketable layer-cake. In others it comes uncomfortably close, like the two previous novels, to the shielded surface of its author’s ego.

If one were reading Balchin’s books in sequence the history of his creative effort would by this time bear a marked resemblance to the plot of one of his own novels—a psychological thriller featuring all his cryptic economy and differing only in an obdurate refusal to clear up the central problem of its plot. The reader would find it difficult to refrain from guessing. The narrator is manifestly trying to tell him something; something about being in some kind of trouble. The books project this trouble into their plots, but whether as a way of facing it, or as a way of not facing it, is a puzzle—the abiding puzzle at the centre of Balchin’s creative effort.

In 1962 came Seen Dimly Before Dawn, a story of sexual awakening in adolescence. In the Absence of Mrs. Petersen followed in 1966, having as protagonist a writer obsessed with a lost wife. The book is weak, and its successor, Kings of Infinite Space (1967) is even weaker, dealing with a technological matter—space travel—which has outstripped Balchin’s capacity for response. His concentration was obviously gone. There was no time to get it back. He died in 1970, aged 61. He left more than £10,000, showing himself to have been competent and provident to the last.

Balchin said that he was influenced by the Icelandic Sagas, in which you were told only what people said or did, and had to work out what they thought from that. His success in adapting this method for the novel provided the handle for the philistine appreciation of Balchin: the novel of action, streamlined to perfection, made the novel of commentary look tubby. But sooner or later most of the intelligent critics realized that the author, invisible behind his armour, was being less than wholly candid in his portrayal of reality. Contributing to the post-war British Council symposium Since 1939, Henry Reed was given the job of summarizing activities in the Novel. Balchin got a commendation, but it was at the tail end of the piece, a long way behind the artists. The usual points were made about his skill of craft and solidity of material, but Reed was confident in diagnosing a case of Hemingwayesque sentimentality, of wish-fulfilment masquerading as taciturnity.

Considering that Balchin nowhere sounded very much like Hemingway, it’s interesting that several contemporary critics should have concurred in deciding that he did. The reason, I think, is that Balchin makes the same kind of artistic claim, and embodies the same kind of partial failure in backing it up. All is supposed to be revealed in action—the pretension to objectivity is absolute. Any first-person narrator modelled on the author is supposedly as liable as all the other characters to a revelation of his own failings. But when you get right down to it, everything still seems manipulated, by an authorial ego bent on protecting itself. Pamela Hanford Johnson once said that the trouble with most Balchin novels is that everything in them is relevant. And this defence of selfhood is what everything is relevant to.

Balchin’s pride in his own real-life competence is easily detected as a projection in his novels. There is always a character, usually a major one and often enough the holder of the main viewpoint, who knows how things ought to be done. But whereas in life Balchin’s satisfaction with this ability, if one judges by the tenor of his interviews, seems to have been all of a piece, in the novels the ability comes continually into question, as if the man who possesses it were somehow excluded from the full possibilities of emotion. And the interesting thing—the fundamentally interesting thing in Balchin’s creative psychology—is that he can’t put this question in a way that will oblige him to try answering it. Stopping the enquiry from reaching that point is one of the duties his technique fulfils. Instead of being fully exploratory, his novels are therapeutic. And the therapy leads to no cure—all it does is continue.

The man of competence in Darkness Falls From the Air is the narrator, Bill Sarratt. A volunteer Civil Servant, Sarratt is trying to clear bureaucratic obstructions and get his Ministry working on sound business lines. It’s clear to him, and he makes it clear to us, that ordinary muddling-through will lose the War. Without asking the narrator to praise himself, but just by revealing him in action against the inertia of petty office-holders, Balchin manages to convince us of his hero’s fitness: we don’t question it. But what we can’t help questioning is the verisimilitude of the conflict between private characters taking place against the background of this public squabble. Sarratt’s wife, Marcia, is infatuated with Stephen, a posturing dreamer. Reading on through Balchin, we learn that this is the standard triangle of his novels. The lady admires the competent man but loses her head over a charmer. The competent man looks on with resignation as the two irrational creatures waste each other’s time. For some reason Balchin can’t get free of this formula: even when he switches the sexes, it still looms as an obvious plot-element in a narrative technique which otherwise successfully dedicates itself to being the reverse of obvious.

Stephen is outrageous but Marcia feels that he needs her, and can’t fight free even when Sarratt threatens to walk out. When Marcia finally tries to achieve seriousness by helping the wounded in the blitzed East End, she is literally immolated. Her death in a raid is presented as some kind of purification, but to the reader it can’t help but seem excessive—the couple are reconciled in the wife’s ritual punishment. The most that the husband can admit to (and there is no indication that the author’s view is any different) is that he might be disqualified from Love. Being so capable, he perhaps offers nothing with which these poor incapable creatures can identify. The bereaved hero is left silent and grim, all set to have his taciturn grief misinterpreted as callousness by the indefatigable Stephen. Stephen is not too bad to be true, but he is bad enough to be unwarrantably convenient to the neatness of the plot. In a subtle, highly sophisticated way, the reader’s wishes are being catered to. Everybody is Sarratt, and everybody knows Stephen. But nobody is Stephen. And why else does Marcia ever leave us, except through her lack of strength to cope with our perfections?

In The Small Back Room the competent man is the narrator, Sammy, a problem-solver up against a lethal new type of booby-trap being air-dropped by the Luftwaffe. The booby-trap is designed to kill disposal experts, through flattering them into inattention by offering them a decoy solution to its fuse. Sammy has only one foot, and the pain of his stump drives him to drink. But he’s the best scientific brain in his department. One of the book’s themes is that he partly wastes his ability by not assuming power when it is offered—his reluctance to be promoted beyond the level of ordinary practical problems limits everyone’s effectiveness, including his own, since the duffers who inherit the vacant posts direct policy in the wrong direction. His girlfriend, Susan, sees that in being content to just get on with what he knows he’s good at he is indulging a weakness. This theme in the book is convincing: there can be few readers who have not been forced to take a long look at their own lives because of it, even if (or perhaps especially when) they don’t themselves suffer from Sammy’s superabundance of practical ability.

But Sammy’s ability is also questioned in another way, a way over which Balchin hasn’t, one begins to suspect, quite got control. In the famous scene at the end of the book, where Sammy at last deduces how the booby-trap must work, his courage and mental strength hold up but his physical strength gives out, and he needs assistance to complete the job. This failure he interprets as a catastrophic revelation of weakness. Despite the fact that the novel spends a good deal of its time rubbing in Sammy’s sense of physical inadequacy, this conclusion again seems excessive, and sets the reader to wondering if The Small Back Room might not be just as programmatic as its predecessor. Susan is strong rather than weak—in fact she’s a paragon—and there is no element in her of the author taking revenge on the irrational feminine. She supports Sammy through thick and thin, and her criticism of his character is the sort of news he obviously needs to hear. Nevertheless Sammy’s unease about Susan can’t be fully accounted for by reference to a missing foot.

As often in Balchin, a ritual maiming tends to distract the reader’s eye from a psychological problem that the author is having difficulty either suppressing or facing. Sammy is really a second version of the capable hero threatened by a charming usurper of his woman’s affections. The triangle is worked out in compressed form in the chapter where Susan quells her reluctance and dances with the odious, but light-footed, Maurice. Maurice can offer what Sammy can’t. Similarly, the department smoothie, one Waring, doesn’t let his incompetence in science deter him from charming and finagling his way to the top, and we see that Marcia is attracted to him even while disapproving of him completely. What comes over strongly, and more directly than Balchin seems to intend, is his hero’s deadening quality, his lack of lightness. He would suffer from this, you suspect, whether he was maimed or not: his lack is a deficiency of the soul, and the physical inadequacies are simply convenient metaphors. The hero is missing out on something. Perhaps it is something irrational. The true tension in the book comes from Balchin’s self-defeating urge to define what that something is, to pull himself up by his own boot-straps and see beyond the limit of rational understanding. But if rational understanding includes everything, there is no beyond. (It’s interesting to note, at this point, that when Powell and Pressburger, in the film version of The Small Back Room, changed the ending so that Sammy triumphed, the change was apparently made with Balchin’s approval. Wisely given: the original ending would have been very hard to make convincing.)

The triangle is once again at work in Mine Own Executioner, only this time with the sexes switched about. Normally one would be obliged to abandon a critical formula at the moment when it became necessary to substitute for any of its terms, but in this case the reversal is so glaring it can’t help but reinforce the idea one has already had. Felix Milne is a capable psychologist with a wonderful wife nicknamed Rhino. Their marriage has everything, but he finds himself irrationally attracted to a girlish femme fatale, Barbara—a female edition of Stephen, with maximum irresponsibility potential. Rhino hangs about with superhuman patience while Felix makes up his mind about Barbara. Switched back the other way, the three-way relationship would simply be the standard one of capable husband (Felix) watching nice wife (Rhino) trying to find some extra, inexplicable fulfilment with an unworthy rival (Barbara). Rhino has been given a disorganizational streak to help the disguise, but the mechanism of the relationship is extremely obtrusive. Meanwhile, Felix’s patient, a neurotic ex-pilot (with a bad leg) called Adam Lucian, is periodically seized with the urge to kill his wife, and finally does so.

In Mine Own Executioner the true psychological tension has all to do with the author inadvertently supplying hints that the roles have been switched. Felix tells a friend that husbands are always sending him their wives to find out what’s gone wrong with the marriage, instead of sending themselves. Felix takes the blame—he has a ritual bout of self-detestation after Lucian dies—and returns to duty in Rhino’s arms. Rhino, all-comprehending, forgives. Rhino’s dialogue, while humanely waiting for Felix to sort himself out, sounds exactly like Sarratt’s. In so far as Felix is a male figure at all, his main point of interest lies in Balchin’s attempt to graft onto him the capacity to submit, to give in to a passion. Not surprisingly, it comes out in rather girlish terms: Felix buys things to surprise his wife, and gets petulant when the surprise is spoiled.

The overriding sense given by Mine Own Executioner is one of fatalistic resignation: the psychologist is stuck with just slogging on at what he is good at, even though it can do little to stop things being how they are. The book faces up to a post-war lack of purpose, with nothing left to do except comb the rubble and pick up the pieces. But the tension in it comes from what is not being faced, its secret signals. Whether or to what extent Balchin knew he was making these signals is part of the puzzle.

Lord, I Was Afraid
is full of couples breaking up and purpose breaking down. ‘Lord, I was afraid, and went and hid Thy talent in the earth...‘All the evidence suggests that the immediate post-war years were a time of crisis for Balchin’s sense of himself as a capable man. In 1947 he wrote a Ministry of Information pamphlet on The Aircraft Builders, an account of British aircraft production from 1939 to 1945. As a summary of a complicated matter it is quite outstanding in its plainness—Balchin had no equals at this kind of analysis. He demonstrates the principle of interchangeability between the Shadow Factories by choosing a single example—the story of how, after an engine was constructed in one factory and copied in another, both engines were stripped, the parts shuffled, and two engines were built out of the pile. The essence of the whole business is given in a single sentence. Compare Balchin’s economical expository style with the prose-poetic rhetoric of the Grierson school of documentary, and you can see how thoroughly Balchin exemplifies the new, terse realism which had come up with the war. But the war was over, and in other bye-writings of the period Balchin showed that he was well aware of the lost dynamism. For the magazine Occupational Psychology he wrote an article on incentives, saying that now Hitler had been defeated and the old sweat-or-starve incentive was being eliminated by the welfare state, the one remaining reason to work— i.e., to gain a higher standard of living—would be of only limited efficacy. And the State was too abstract a concept for people to strive on behalf of. The best one could hope for would be the disappearance of work as an activity separate from private life.

Most of this was prescient, but being right didn’t help Balchin out of his fix—the fixbeing that his range of practical talent had become obsolete. Walter Benjamin said that all aesthetic politics lead to one end: war. The corollary holds: only a war generates aesthetic politics. With peace, and the disintegration of national purpose, Balchin lost the opportunity of contributing to the nation as if the nation were a work of art. He had been demobilized more thoroughly than any front-line soldier. He was being asked to hide his own talent. The other cry of Lord, I Was Afraid is not Biblical but Shakespearian: Othello’s occupation’s gone.

The Borgia Testament is an equally intense, and much more clear, complaint of failing purpose. Machiavelli, in the seventh chapter of The Prince, ascribes Cesare Borgia’s eventual failure as a conqueror to sheer bad luck. Balchin doesn’t take the story quite to the point of Cesare’s illness, preferring to concentrate on the possibility of a collapse of will. ‘It felt’, he makes Cesare write, ‘rather as though reality, in some way, was the great illusion... I don’t understand this. I merely say that it was so...‘ The concluding sentences are especially revealing. ‘But above everything... I have expected too much reason from the men of my day... I could never believe that these barbaric, superstitious, shadowy legends have a real meaning and value for them.’ It is not just permissible but obligatory, I think, to assume that in such passages Balchin is looking into himself, and half-perceiving that his own rationality might be a limitation.

A Sort of Traitors, a reversion to the formula of the wartime novels, is something of a caricature. The girl this time is called Lucy and is a decent chap rather along the lines of Susan in The Small Back Room. Lucy looks after her one-time lover, Ivor, who has been so comprehensively shot-up in the war that he strikes the irreverent reader as a combination of Jake in The Sun Also Rises and John Cleese playing an armless subaltern in a Monty Python sketch. The appropriately up-dated version of Stephen is a wet-behind-the-ears young scientist called Marriott, good at stinks but a duffer in matters of real-life emotion. Caving in under the pressure of spoon-feeding Ivor, Lucy can’t resist a night out with the intact Marriott, even though she despises him. Petulance is distributed evenly between Ivor and Marriott, but there is no doubt which one of them is supposed to have the real intelligence—Ivor. Maimed, sick of being a burden, he obligingly bumps himself off in the twelfth chapter, leaving his loved one free to enjoy the experiences he cannot provide.

It shouldn’t be thought, though, that Ivor is easy to laugh at when the book is actually being read. He is so obviously Too Much that the reader worries for the author’s safety—what could be the pain, if only inventing a grotesque like Ivor can lessen it?

Whatever the pain was, it reached flash-point with A Way Through the Wood, generally thought of as Balchin’s response to the collapse of his marriage. The triangle is at work again, but the atmosphere is vengeful: the tolerance has gone. The quiet capable man does the narrating. His wife, Jill, does the betraying. Bill Bule is the charmer with the boyish grin. Jill has an affair with Bule, and while they are driving in his Lagonda they knock down and kill somebody, thereby setting the district on its ear. The capable man solves the crime, but picks the wrong killer. It wasn’t Bule driving, it was his wife. On her own admission, Jill is ‘no good’. Having said this, she is free to go and join her lover. Her men have covered up for her.

Manning admits Bule’s qualities—Bule is no Stephen—but the wife’s flightiness is this time positively evil, and Manning’s forgivingness at the end of the book is scarcely a matter of self-abasement. ‘I seem to have expected Jill to wear trousers and to have been to a good public school’, he narrates understandingly, ‘and to have my sort of honour, and my sort of principles, instead of wearing a skirt and having her own.’ It is said that intelligent women dislike Balchin’s books, and reading stuff like that you can see why. Balchin is at full stretch in A Way Through the Wood: he has come as close as he dares to submission. But finally, and seemingly in spite of himself, he asserts: the real reason why Jill loves someone else besides Manning is because she is no good.

A Way Through the Wood had some success as a play, called Waiting for Gillian. Olivier produced it, with Googie Withers and John MacCallum. It isn’t hard to imagine the commuting businessmen in the stalls grunting in sympathy with Manning as he faces his martyrdom with a clear, realistic brain. Even more indicatively, the book was serialized in Woman’s Own, where the illustrator had no trouble at all in fitting appropriate faces to the characters. How the tongues of knitting ladies must have clucked at the shenanigans of naughty Jill.

With Sundry Creditors Balchin is much more in control of his effects. As a novel about business decisions this book is right out on its own. Its multiple-plotted dexterity was widely admired at the time, just as the flatness of its characters was widely complained of. The factory has no competition in establishing itself as the hero. One of the reasons for the thinness of the characters, I think, is that Balchin’s obsessions are this time fragmented and scattered, so that the different aspects of his usual situations show up all over the book, without the concentrated impact which previously made them memorable. For a Balchin book, Sundry Creditors is overpopulated. It’s notable, however, that Walter Lang, the dynamic business brain, loses first his wife, then his daughter, and ends by losing the factory too. There is a purgatorial, leaden-footed run through sand-dunes as he searches for the girl, and finally the collapse of his judgement. Critics at the time said it was hard to care about Lang. In the context of the other novels, however, it is much easier to care about him—or rather, worry about the author. The book is vitally interesting in its practical detail, but would have little tension above the Planemakers level if one were not convinced that the author is once again—whether deliberately or inadvertently it is hard to say— revealing a weakness in his own view of life. Limiting the revelation of Walter’s character, however, is the presence of a back-up man. There is a character called Lawrence who demonstrates how cool competence—a sense of the possible—is still the answer. Such an unimpeachable objectivist as Lawrence crops up in nearly every book, to show the man racked by spiritual crisis that the antidote to being merely a practical brain is to be an even better practical brain.

In The Fall of the Sparrow the charmer is given full value: more so even than in A Way Through the Wood. The first person narrator, Henry Payne, is the capable man. Jason Pellew is the charmer, and is traced through a lifetime of going to the dogs. He is about to be jailed when the novel opens. Payne reminisces, and for once we find that the imaginative man is conjured up not as an impractical posturer but as a man of adventurous impulse and genuine sensitivity. An old love of both of them, Leah, addresses Henry:

‘It seems an awfully long time since that night when I tried to seduce you at the May Ball.’
‘Did you try to seduce me?’
‘You know I did. You were very shocked because you had thought I was fond of Jason. Never mind, you repelled me like a gentleman and a true friend.’

For this once only, the capable man’s practicality is shown to entail incomprehension. Jason is the man who can join with Leah instinctively. Jason’s life is a mess and Henry’s is a model of order, but there are intensities of experience from which Henry is debarred. Pamela Hansford Johnson relaxed her strictures about relevance over this one novel. She said that it had strangeness, and indeed it has. Balchin has allowed his imaginative charmer an independent personality, one that can’t be fully reproduced on a punched card.

In Seen Dimly Before Dawn the triangle was taken back to the narrator’s childhood. A sixteen-year-old boy is staying in the country with his uncle and aunt. The aunt is attractive, and he idolizes her. Together they plan fantasy revenges against the local squire, a dog-kicking heavy. What the boy does not realize, until the traumatic final scene, is that his beloved aunt, who has led him on but not to satisfaction, has for all this time been the squire’s mistress. Lennie is not presented as either evil or stupid, and that Balchin can show her falling in love for reasons incomprehensible to the narrator can be counted as a gain. In connection with a sixteen-year-old boy, the shock of recognition rings truer than it does with Balchin’s adults.

With In the Absence of Mrs. Petersen there is a clear decline, and all one can do is note glumly that Balchin s drawing upon his not especially exalted experience as a Hollywood script-writer (he wrote the ur-text of the Cleopatra script, among other projects) to write a novel about a Hollywood script-writer going on an obsessive search for a lost (in fact dead) wife. His companion on the quest is his wife’s double. As a plot it is no great shakes. As a possible indication of Balchin’s lingering preoccupation with loss, it is of some interest. Kings of Infinite Space is just a novel of not very adventurous adventure, memorable for a single line of dialogue that bears on the whole of Balchin’s productive literary career. One of the female characters says that in sexual affairs there’s nothing to touch a properly organized fool’s paradise.

That there are undeclared and probably unintended tensions working in Nigel Balchin’s novels doesn’t invalidate them, but it does help explain why they have always been received as something less than completely serious. They seem less than completely serious because they reinforce the author’s deepest wishes more than they clarify them, and some of their popularity can be put down to the fact that they do the same job for the reader. The completely serious artist, even if he can boast only a quarter of Balchin’s talent, will go further in breaking down his own psychology than Balchin did. Balchin is remembered by his contemporaries as the kindest of men. He is also remembered (especially, among his acquaintances I’ve spoken to, by women) as a man whose confidence in pronouncing on other people’s motives was unshakeable and finally tedious: the counter-sorter was always ticking over. It appears that Balchin’s ego counted on being able to sum everything up. Mysteries did not exist—until they surprised him. The economy of his books rings like falsity, since it has been won at the cost of imposing logic on life. His orderly mind forced him to settle for perfection.

And yet with all that said, Balchin wrote books that were better than the superlative adjectives used in their praise implied. Broadcasting on Irish radio in 1947, Conor Cruise O’Brien said Balchin was ‘so intelligent that the most damning adjective a critic can find for him is “clever”—’. The intelligence still comes through, and the wartime books, especially, are still contemporary novels. Mobilization for war changed everything in Britain, and Balchin was the first properly equipped novelist of the new meritocracy. The ministerial bumblers in the wartime books are too easily knocked over to be much more than tin targets, but the way the brighter men talk about them is the very tone of the new life to come. Balchin was realistic about power: he knew that the old illusions of greatness were at last over. Kingsley Amis would vehemently deny any direct influence from Balchin, but it remains true that Balchin helped create the audience which read Amis in the Fifties. There are scenes all through Darkness Falls from the Air and The Small Back Room that are teeming with Professor Welches, Bertrands and Goldsmiths. What’s missing is humour. Satire is there in plenty, but true humour was not among Balchin’s gifts. He was too certain of himself to let his imagination do its own thinking.

Intensifying what he did was the way he did it. As Arthur Calder-Marshall said when reviewing Sundry Creditors in 1953, Balchin’s Forties books were ‘some of the few books that were written. Balchin’s professional skill gives a meaning to brilliance which the word doesn’t usually possess. Accomplishment of that order is its own morality—an artistic dedication all on its own. Balchin’s best novels (Darkness Falls From the Air, The Small Back Room, Mine Own Executioner, A Sort of Traitors, Sundry Creditors and The Fall of the Sparrow) are popular novels whose seriousness, as far as it goes, is beyond question. If their neatness depends in part on Balchin’s limitations, that is the price we have to pay. Aesthetics are dialectical, not monolithic. A writer as good as Balchin won’t go away just because you’ve established that there are departments of his own psyche he was unable fully to explore.

(The New Review, April 1974)


Balchin’s pre-war writings had small success, only the novel Lightbody on Liberty managing to sell in four figures. He was content to let the market’s judgment stand, repudiating all his early work simply by never seeking to have it reprinted. The books—especially the novels—are hard to find. The London Library, for example, has none of them. The British Museum catalogues all three of the novels (No Sky, Simple Life and Lightbody on Liberty) but seems able to supply only the last two: weeks of waiting failed to lure No Sky (1934) out of the Woolwich fastness where all the fiction that never makes it goes to be embalmed. At that rate, the chances of Balchin’s early work blazing into present-day fame are pretty slim. Which is almost certainly the way he would have wanted it—compared with Darkness Falls from the Air any previous starts are bound to look false.

And yet, as one might expect, the apprentice books can’t help being illustrative of his preoccupations. Simple Life (1935) tells the story of Rufus, a clever young ad-man who gets himself fired, walks out on his icy girl-friend and goes bush in an Orwellian act of self-discovery. He is taken care of by Mendel, a philosophizing drop-out, and Mendel’s girlfriend Ruth. Ruth is a clear forecast of Leah in The Fall of the Sparrow. A prototype Balchin triangle quickly forms. Ruth lets Rufus sleep with her but goes on loving Mendel, who Rufus gradually realizes is a complete phoney. The shock comes when Ruth confesses that she realizes it, too—Mendel’s bogusness is part of what binds her to him. Rufus, the rational man, is powerless to analyse or terminate the irrationality of the lovers: it’s a story which the later novels go on and on refining. Particularly interesting is the fact that Balchin has projected some of his own qualities into Mendel, especially his detachment. ‘If you beat him,’ says Ruth of Mendel, ‘he’d just be coldly interested in what it felt like to be beaten.’ But Mendel spends more time as the author’s opposite than his like, ending the book as a druid-like mystic, before whom the hero, Rufus, stands uncomprehending—and with no hint that the narrator comprehends any better. Most of Balchin’s future themes are already present in this novel, and so is a good deal of his peculiar skill. The opening chapters in the advertising agency suffer badly from employing naturalistic technique on the kind of farce which Evelyn Waugh had already proved needed to be treated elliptically or not at all. But as soon as the hero breaks out into open country the story comes alive. With the front shorn off and the rest trimmed of some of its commentary, Simple Life could still be an interesting novel.

Lightbody on Liberty, which came out in 1936, sold marginally better than the others but is a hard read now. It is all a farcical extravaganza, which even the accuracy of Balchin’s later manner would not have been able to make attractive—tripping the light fantastic was not something his mind could manage, although How To Run a Bassoon Factory (published in 1934 under his nom de plume Mark Spade) is a sprightly enough harbinger of the Northcote Parkinson tradition in which organizations are semi-solemnly anatomized.

But on the whole the example of Waugh’s early novels overwhelms what Balchin is trying to do. Nevertheless, the attempt is respectable, reminding us once again that Balchin was by nature a political realist: no mean thing to be in the Thirties. Lightbody is a small-time shopkeeper lured by a police Q-car into breaking the speed limit. Intensely law-abiding until then, he suddenly realizes that he is not free. His case is taken up by Sir Joseph Steers, a Gerald Nabarro-cum-Robert Maxwell super-patriot in a red, white and blue Rolls Royce. A whole social movement forms around him. He is carried away with excitement, but finds in the end that he has been a dupe. The plot forecasts the disillusionment comedies of the Ealing period (The Man in the White Suit) and the even later, wholly cynical films of the Boulting Brothers (especially I’m All Right Jack). If the fun had been funnier—had borrowed some of Waugh’s technique as well as his tone—the book might have stood out. Certainly it is hard to think of many other contemporary novels which showed an equivalent hard-headedness. Lightbody’s son—a Communist under the lunatic impression that his father is a capitalist—constitutes an admirable piece of political observation. Unfortunately the book is at least three times too long. An excellent screenplay could have been boiled out of it, but no British films of a comparable political sophistication were being made at that time. They ordered such things better in France: Renoir and Prévert had made Le Crime de Monsieur Lange—thematically quite similar—the previous year.