At the recent Utopian Spaces conference in Oxford, it cheered my heart to note that there were two papers on that most unjustly neglected writer, C.E.Montague. In particular, there was a paper on Montague’s 1927 novel, Right Off the Map, by Amy Cutler, who has posted it in full on her very promising new blog. This sparked my interest greatly, so I’ve been reading the book.
I’d heard of Right Off the Map before, but had read a disparaging comment somewhere that led me to think it wouldn’t be very good, or very relevant to my research. Moral: Don’t listen to disparaging comments.
Right Off the Map is set in Ria, an imaginary republic ruled by an elite of British stock. Next door is Porta, and a conflict is stirred up between the two by Bute, a profiteer who wants to sell war supplies to both sides. The novel tells the inglorious story of the war.
The novel is based on a play that Montague had written back in 1902 (presumably intending it for Miss Horniman’s repertory company, but it was never performed). The 1902 origin is evident in the type of war described, which is rather like the Boer War, but with mountains. One of the most crucial military events is the siege of Ria’s capital, whose inhabitants are reduced to near-starvation, clearly inspired by such Boer War sieges those of Kimberley and Mafeking.
The theatrical origins are fairly obvious in the chapters set in Ria. There are long conversational scenes, all in one location, punctuated by dramatic exits and entrances. The chapters set in the mountains during the war are another matter. These are written in a far more physical style (I’d suspect the influence of John Buchan, but Montague was a keen mountaineer, well able to imagine his own detailed descriptions of screes, overhangs and such mountainous features.) These chapters are stylistically different from the Ria chapters, but this doesn’t make the book disjointed, because the contrast is dramatically effective. In Ria, people talk; in the war zone, they have to act.
The novel has two central figures; there is Burnage, editor of the most distinguished Rian newspaper, The Voice, and there is Willan, once his fag at school and now a soldier brought in to help in the battle against the Portans. The book mercilessly exposes Burnage, a man utterly without firm principles, who constantly makes disastrous decisions for bad reasons, often motivated by nothing more than a scornful look from his dissatisfied wife. He betrays his official principles, his country and his friend. The satire in these scenes is very like that in A Hind Let Loose, Montague’s 1904 novel, which is also set largely in newspaper offices. Montague, who had worked for the Manchester Guardian since 1890, had a sharp eye for the hypocrisies and pomposities of journalism, and enjoyed exposing them.
Willan, by contrast, is the man of action, with immense integrity, but few political or social skills. He has a huge and quite unjustified respect for Burnage, the man of words. Willan’s skills lead the Rian army from total disaster; he regroups it and leads it on to rescue the besieged city. Only Burnage’s weakness ruins his plans.
It’s a good read, and possibly the best of Montague, since it combines the satire of A Hind Let Loose with the profound thinking about war that is found in Disenchantment and Rough Justice. The latter novel is a very earnest affair, which has interesting things to say about the war, but says them in rather a dogged way.
Taking up his old play again clearly reunited Montague with his less preachy side, and allowed him to reinvigorate his writing. There is a ruthlessness about it that is only occasionally found in his post-war work (though it’s there in the short stories ‘Honours Easy’ and ‘The First Blood Sweep’).
The Rian scenes are Shavian, but the best of the dialogue in the war scenes has an almost Kiplingesque feel for the allusive way that men speak to one another when they are involved in a job. And I enjoyed his digression on the way soldiers ‘chaff’ each other before a battle:
During the luncheon rest that day, the Staff and a few regimental officers who were invited to join them were laughing and chaffing harder than ever. One man chaffed because his spirits had risen in the presence of things queer, perhaps boding, possibly the raw material of great adventure; another because he enjoyed human converse, and chaff was the only mode of converse he knew; another because he felt a little lonely, with these eerie things going on, and liked to have the jolly din of voices kept up; another to prove to himself that he was nonchalant in the face of the creepy symptoms – as athletes of small experience plume themselves upon their many yawns before a big race, fancying this nervousness to be a sign of robust unconcern. The Colonel chaffed because he felt that a leader of men must lead all the time, sometimes sobering, sometimes enlivening, always keeping up a flow of right guidance and stimulation, if only by means so humble as chaff.
When the fighting has become difficult, one soldier is ashamed because he had previously displayed fear. The instinctive soldier Willan chaffs him, and:
Seaton glowed with pleasure under Willan’s chaff. It seemed, more than anything else, to certify the ex-coward a man among men. One does not chaff those whom one would black-ball.
The war scenes of the novel reflect Montague’s Great War experience, but the attitudes expressed show how far he had come from the enthusiasm with which he had enlisted in 1914. One character describes the battle against Porto as ‘a battle that you simply must fight.’
‘Every war’s that when it starts,’ said Merrick. ‘It’s only after it’s over that they find out it was silly or caddish.’
‘It is, nine times out of ten. Even the Good old Great War they don’t seem so sure about now. But […] we’ve got the right thing this time. It’s a war in a hundred.’
Which is exactly what they say about all wars at the start. I can imagine Bush and Blair saying, ‘All the other wars in Afghanistan have led to humiliation of the invading powers, but this time…’