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Timothy Findley: Famous Last Words
I must confess a certain weakness for a good conspiracy novel (no, not that crappy famous one) such as Foucault’s Pendulum. Findley, one of whose key themes is anti-fascism, has written a wonderful conspiracy story about an alternative government being posited just before and during World War II. If you have ever read Ezra Pound‘s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (no, nor have I), you will know that Mauberley is a fictitious poet, aesthete and alter ago for Pound himself. One of the many wonderful conceits in this novel is that Findley makes Mauberley his main character. In this novel, Mauberley is an American writer who has had some success in the past but not much in his later years (i.e. late 1930s/early 1940s). He is friends with a variety of people, particularly though certainly not exclusively Wallis Simpson, later to become the Duchess of Windsor. Indeed, towards the end he admits to being in love with her, though it is not clear whether this is sexual love or a more spiritual love. (His sexuality is left very much open. He has friends of both sexes, though seems to be friendlier with women but, for example, is quite disgusted when Sir Harry Oakes suggests that he is going to visit a (female) prostitute.) Most of Mauberley’s friends, including, of course, Pound himself, are right-wing but one of the key themes of the book is the difference between extreme right-wing (i.e. thinking that the right should run the world for their own benefit) and the democratic right-wing.
For much of the book, Mauberley is wandering around Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. However, we first really meet him at the end of his life. He has arrived at the Grand Elysium Hotel, an exclusive hotel in the Austrian Alps. (One of the beauties of this novel is determining who and what is historical and who and what is not. Many of the characters sound convincingly historical and sometimes they are but all too often I can find no evidence for their historical existence. I have decided that the Grand Elysium is fictitious.) This is a hotel he has visited many times before. For example, Greta Garbo had the room next to him on one of his visits and, though he listened at the wall, he heard little of interest. However, he is now visiting at the end of the war, when the Germans are in retreat and he is, as far as he is aware, the only guest. The manager and his assistant charge him a lot of money (which he seems to have) both for staying and for various services (e.g. running water). He feels (rightly) that the Allied authorities will be after him and he is trying to escape to a safe haven in Germany. However, as we learn early on, he will not get there. American forces under Captain Freyberg and Lieutenant Quinn (both fresh from the liberation of Dachau) arrive there, primarily in their quest to find fascists. They find several bodies and, in particular, they find Mauberley with an ice pick through his right eye. Though the story is about Mauberley, one of the sub-plots is the somewhat different views of Freyberg and Quinn, the former being resolutely anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi (for which he will pay the price at the end when, even though the war is not yet over, the Nazis are no longer the enemy but the Communists are), while Quinn, though anti-Fascist, is not so hard line, admiring Mauberley for his writing and arguing (with some justification) that he was not pro-Nazi. Ashes in the bath reveal that all of Mauberley’s carefully prepared notes have been burned, presumably by his assassin but one of the men finds that Mauberley has carefully written them out all over the rooms formerly occupied by his friend, Isabella Loverso. The notes that Freyberg and Quinn read on the walls form the basis of much of the novel.
The key element of the plot is the revelation of a grand conspiracy of which Mauberley is part, though only on the edges, and about which he initially knows little, though gradually picks it up. The basis of the plot is that there is a group, in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and probably elsewhere, who plan to form a government (though whether this is to be national or pan-national is not clear). The group is code-named Penelope. We know some of the participants. They include von Ribbentrop, then German foreign minister, and Rudolf Hess in Germany, with Walter Schellenberg at first being on the opposite side but, possibly, being on the same side by the end; Count Ciano in Italy; Charles Bedaux in France/US; Charles Lindbergh in the US (though he seems to fade away); Primo de Rivera (under his name of the Marquis de Estella) in Spain and the presumably fictitious Air Vice-Marshal Sir Alan Paisley in Britain. The idea was that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would be head of the new government. This is where Mauberley came in because, as an old friend of the Duchess of Windsor, he is used to pass messages to her and to influence her when necessary.
The group does seem, however, to have even more powerful elements controlling it, as von Ribbentrop, for example, is not only afraid of being found out by Hitler but he is also afraid of these powerful elements. They, whoever they may be, employ a ruthless assassin, Harry Reichardt, who kills all those who refuse to join up as well as those that are dispensable, including Mauberley at the end. They are even capable of getting at the powerful, driving Rudolf Hess mad when he lands in Britain, so that he won’t talk. We also learn that the group is opposed to Hitler and Mussolini but clearly not averse to seizing power illegally. How this is to be done is never discussed, though von Ribbentrop is clearly involved in it and there is a failed attempt to move the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from the Bahamas, where the Duke has been made governor, to Europe by German submarine.
But, as the story is told primarily by Mauberley, it is his perspective we get. He clearly is sensitive and aesthetic and also aware of his own limitations, unwittingly drawn into a plot whose aims and agenda he is not fully aware of. His main reason for doing so seems to be his affection for the Duchess of Windsor, rather than any strong political conviction. Is he evil as Freyberg thinks or more of an unwitting victim as Quinn thinks? While there is no doubt that Findley is opposed to the conspiracy, thinking it barely better than the Fascists it will replace, he sees Mauberley more as an innocent artist caught up in something that he does not really understand. The realpolitik at the end, when Freyberg is replaced and it is made clear that it is suddenly the Communists rather than the Nazis that are the enemy, shows Findley’s cynicism towards the anti-Fascist approach he espouses.
Findley manages to play around with history in all sorts of ways, such as the attack on the Duke of Windsor’s reception in the Bahamas, where more than fifty people are killed, the Duke’s face being smashed up when he seemingly walks into a mirror when he is about to be spirited away from Portugal to the Bahamas and the idea that the Duke and Duchess are very much party to the conspiracy, not to mention all the real and fictitious characters who seemed to be involved one way or another. He does it very cleverly, sometimes perhaps too cleverly, but is clearly enjoying himself. Whether the whole thing is entirely tongue in cheek or there is some truth to it, is best left to the individual reader, but whatever your views, it is a fine novel.
First published 1981 by Clarke, Irwin