This is a very brief series where I talk about books I have read that are mediocre. I would normally review the books on 3:AM, but as these books are so mediocre I can’t be bothered to invest the close reading and intellectual rigour that you will have come to expect from my 3:AM reviews.
You might ask, why discuss a book at all if it’s just average? What can you say about it? And yet true mediocrity is hard to attain. There is a special kind of talent and quality that goes into something completely average. I think it’s right that this should be recognised, if only on an obscure (and average) lit blog.
Mediocre book one is C J Sansom’s Nazi counterfactual Dominion. This is an alternate history where Britain capitulated to the Third Reich during World War Two and is now a German satellite state. It’s set in 1952, and well researched and imagined. A reclusive Hitler, twitching with a multitude of neurological diseases, flings men and materiel into the grinder of Stalingrad. Lord Beaverbrook controls an unelected Vichy government that has just sold out Britain’s Jews for access to Nazi Europe trade markets. The unemployed have been sent to agricultural labour camps as part of some blood and soil workfare initiative. Even the Guardian has been turned into an antisemitic hate pamphlet. (Couldn’t happen today.) Sansom has done his research, as the extensive afterword attests, and it’s convincing. If Britain had fallen on its knees in 1940 the resultant society would be very much like Dominion.
The rest of Sansom’s book is not so convincing. Sansom is so keen to show off his research that the narrative and dialogue is repeatedly hijacked by long chunks of exposition. The characters seem to know more or less everything about the society they are living in and how it works. And that’s what doesn’t convince. Even in a free society saturated by information most people don’t have a fucking clue what’s really going on. There are people who follow politics their whole lives and end up with a completely distorted picture of the world around them. And neither the actually existed WW2 nor Sansom’s counterfactual have been equipped with social media, FoI and rolling news. In his history of the war, All Hell Broke Loose, Max Hastings points out that ‘only a tiny number of national leaders and commanders knew much about anything beyond their immediate line of sight. Civilians existed in a fog of propaganda and uncertainty, scarcely less dense in Britain and the US than in Germany or Russia.’ The best writers on totalitarianism know this too. Margaret Atwood’s wayward rebel Offred doesn’t even have that immediate line of sight: she is forced to wear a thick veil, her vision truncated with equestrian blinkers.
From a liberal writer, Dominion is a golf club of a novel. Most of the main characters are white and middle class. Apart from one impressive set piece of street rebellion (for Sansom can write well when he wants to) there is no perspective from any of Nazism’s Jewish victims. There are actual Nazi characters in the book, and they are portrayed realistically. In a piece for the Guardian Sansom wrote about his Gestapo investigator, Gunther Hoth: ‘With Gunther I have tried showing something different to a stock Nazi, and he has some of the features of the classic modern detective… how a decent enough young German became a slave to Hitler’s ideas is also part of the tale.’ Problem is, Sansom wants his villains to seem human but not too human. Every so often the novelist feels the need to remind us (as if we needed to be reminded) that these are the bad guys. And so Gunther or one of his colleagues will suddenly say: ‘Oh yes, we’re the Nazis. Heil Hitler! Ahahahahahaha!’ That’s not an actual line of dialogue, but it might as well be.
The tone is almost complacent, reminiscient of some postwar imperial children’s comic. You never get the fear that our grandparents must have felt, looking up and seeing the pitiless outline of a Luftwaffe bomber against the London sky. There is an assumption that freedom and democracy will always triumph and British values will forever win the day. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work out like that in life.
Sansom’s book ain’t all bad. It has readability, which is the first duty of a fiction writer. There are some vivid glimpses – the abandoned transport, rocking with the condemned in the middle of some mountain vista, the exploding Russian corpses of Stalingrad. Elsewhere, Sansom falls back on MOR cliche. The main character has the expected affair with a feisty Resistance woman of exotic background. Churchill walks in at one point, ageing and dishevelled, and refers ruefully to his ‘black dog’.
Dominion is a sacrifice of story for accuracy and I am surprised that it was so well received. Especially now I’ve started rereading The Kindly Ones. Littell’s novel tells the story of WW2 through the eyes of a fictional SS sociopath. Both books are based on the record. But only one shows us what the novel can do.