The book fell into my hands again after a span of 20 years. I had been fiercely enthusiastic about it back then: it had set down thought patterns in me. I had gone on to read all the Colin Wilson’s books I could lay hands on – which was not very many, four or five perhaps.
I wondered what impact the book would have on me today. I feared the judgement of a past self which would be reawakened.
I began to read. This time around I was more aware of the social context. Details of rooms and London streets were vivid. The novel is set in the early 1950’s – the sexual frankness and openness to new trends makes it feel like the sixties, but the gentlemen’s clubs and occasional servants give it one foot in the Victorian era.
At first there was surprisingly little that that was familiar. Almost nothing. Almost as though I had never read it — all that remained was the recognition of the ideas driving it, but no recognition of characters or place. There were dim associations for a scene where they call on a ex-chief inspector who is dressed in a bright orange dressing gown. A couple of references to excellent brandy which I recalled finding pretentious. At one point the main character drinks two bottles of wine in a night – when I read it 20 years ago I wondered if that was humanly possible.
Read the rest …
The Russian woman who wields her sexuality with skill and creativity jolted my memory. She initiates a sort of ‘play seduction’ with the main character, an aging academic philosopher. I recall this had fascinated me – I was no doubt still steeped in the very Irish association of feminine charm with sinfulness.
No ‘aha’ moments of instant familiarity. This throws into doubt the continuity of Aiden. How can he even begin to assess the project he set himself back then?
The novel is structured like a thriller. The main character, a German professor called Zweig, catches a fleeting glimpse of a student of his from decades previously – Neumann – outside a London railway station. This student had been a deep-thinking and troubled young man in 1930’s Heidelberg. He had been under the influence of Nietzschean theories of rising above good and evil. Zweig had read newspaper reports years later of how Neumann had inherited millions from an old man who died in mysterious circumstances. And now Zweig spotted him in the company of an old and obviously wealthy gentleman.
Zweig plays a ‘what if’ game with his suspicions. But then more and more evidence accumulates – a police inspector friends reveals Neumann was investigated briefly over the death of yet another old man in Maidstone.
It’s a thriller workling on two levels. On one level Zweig and his friends track down Neumann and piece together the evidence against him. But through flashbooks to pre-war Heidelberg and readings of Neumann’s published articles, Zweig pieces together the mind of a man who has strayed far from conventional morality.
The core question is whether Neumann’s nihilistic philosophy set him on a course that led straight to murder, or whether (the more comfortable thought) all criminals are basically self-deceiving, petty egoists. Crime in that case is an expression an inferiority complex.
Zweig does not for a moment doubt Neumann’s integrity and committment to living life with purpose. Could such a man have striven to rise above the merely human by setting himself beyond good and evil? He recalls a quote from Neumann:
All human beings are insects, and the gods laugh at us. There’s nothing we can do to become greatest … What can a man do to try to be more than an insect?
Wilson shows remarkable prescience. The decades since this novel was first published have thrown up megalomanic murderers time and time again.
‘In this truck is a man whose latent genius if unleashed would rock the nation, whose dynamic energy would overpower those around him. Better let him sleep?’
That’s from the Yorkshire ripper.
There’s a huge sense of intellectual excitement in the novel – coupled with Zweig’s sense of a loss of authenticity in his own life. Whether or not Neumann is a criminal, Zweig has been shaken from living day-to-day by habit.
The novel cleverly holds back from any encounter Neumann until half-way through the book. And in a reversal of momentum, it is Neumann who comes to the lair of his pursuers. The atmosphere of this meeting is tense and subtle: the reader begins to suspect that it is Zweig who has abandoned any seriousness of thought, Zweig perceives sees only personal malice in the encounter, while Neumann is still on his search for Truth.
The author clearly took these ideas as seriously as Dostoyevski did when writing his Brothers Karamanzov. In his contention that mankind is on the verge of a new evolutionary breakthrough in consciousness, Wilson may yet be proved right.
The novel deserves to be read again. But more than that, the “plot engine” deserves a re-visitation – a two-faceted manhunt, to pin down both the physical man and the ideas which drive him.