Monday, July 18, 2011

How Many Miles To Babylon? - Jennifer Johnston

Cover from the first edition.
 'A short, brilliant masterpiece'.

 Roddy Doyle.

'A truly heartbreaking story that stays in your mind for ever'.

Maeve Binchy.

 'As fresh and as moving as ever it was, this remarkable novel is still a delight, undiminished by the passage of time.'

William Trevor.

 How Many Miles to Babylon is a 1974 novel by Irish author Jennifer Johnston. She is now into her 80's and has had a long and distinguished writing career. And I know absolutely nothing more about her than that! I will say this now after some careful thought I honestly can't remember if I've read a novel by an Irish writer before. I quite possibly have but it was probably with unawareness of the nationality. Suffice to say I haven't yet delved into Ulysses but intend to one day!

 Babylon is an extraordinary novel because it is only 156 pages long. If anything it is more a novella, or very short novel than a novel per se. I read the whole thing last night starting at 10pm and finishing just shy of 1.00am. When I was younger I never particularly enjoyed this concise type of writing, but as I've gotten older the skill of this writing has really impressed itself on me and I find myself actively seeking out novels of this type. Johnston in her 156 pages has packed so much in it is hard to believe it is so short.

 So what is it about? In essence it is about the class system of the early 20th century, both in civilian society, and the military. It is a very shrewd look at the subject and Johnston exposes it for the snobby despicable way of thinking it was. The novel starts with narrator Alec in a military prison awaiting execution for an unknown crime. He quickly moves onto how he grew up and the events that led to his incarceration. He grew up in Moycullen, Ireland with parents who have a difficult ,loveless marriage. Alec's mother is a snob and a believer in 'class'. His father is a somewhat defeated man because of his wife's views. It is really interesting when a male or female writer write from the point of view of another sex. Johnston may be a female but her Alec, and his voice, is unmistakably masculine. Again her literary and intellectual skills are very apparent.

 The parents relationship is so different from so many loveless marriages because they don't yell and argue as expected, but quietly snipe at each other. Johnston describes it perfectly and the reader cannot help but feel pity for Alec and quiet disgust towards his mother. His father has with drawn into himself and is something of a non-entity ( Alec's mother is not above telling him he is like his father! ). The only common ground the two have is Alec and they constantly battle each other over his course in life. When the First world War breaks out Alec's mother forces him to enlist, not out of patriotism, but as away to hurt her husband who doesn't want Alec to get involved in a 'foolish war'. This indifference to Alec's fate sums up his mother who is totally self absorbed.

 Her 'class' view of the world interferes with a friendship Alec develops with a local peasant boy Jeremy. They share a common love of horses but Alec's mother dis-approves and bans Alec from mixing with Jeremy. They don't see each other for several years and meet again just as both are about to enlist. The friendship re-ignites and yet Alec knows if they serve together he will be an officer due to his background. He doesn't want to be one but can't escape it. In Dublin he meets his commanding officer Major Glendinning who is something of a class tyrant who despises the Irish lower class like Alec's mother.

 In France Alec and Jeremy face difficult odds in being friends. Glendinning finds out and tries to put a stop to it saying it is unbecoming of an officer to mix with the men. The pair find even in the army the class system prevails albeit in a different form. Glendinning is an unpleasant character who has lost sight of all reason and I felt nothing but loathing towards him. The trench life isn't the best written descriptive wise and is on a par with Robert Grave's Goodbye to all That, a disappointing memoir in my opinion even though very well known. Overall the trench scenes are quite brief as the struggles Alec and Jeremy face are the real focus and the war is just another backdrop as the bogs of Ireland were earlier.

 The novel ends with Jeremy going AWOL in an attempt to find his father who has disappeared in the trenches. He returns and is immediately arrested and sentenced to death for desertion. Alec is ordered by Glendinning to conduct Jeremy's execution. It is Glendinning's class driven sadistic payback for Alec's friendship with Jeremy. The novel ends with Alec shooting Jeremy in his cell instead of going through with the execution. The tragic end reveals why Alec is awaiting execution from the start of the novel.

 This is a fantastic novel. Tragic and sad yes, but that is the point. The premise of friendships/relationships that transcend the class system isn't new, but Johnston takes it one step further by applying it to the army as well. Irish nationalism is an obvious under tone ( she is Irish so it is understandable! ), as she has Jeremy enlisting so he can learn how to use weapons and tactics properly. He realises untrained Irish boys would stand no chance against British soldiers when the time came to fight. His politics are discovered and his execution is as much to do with this as his 'desertion'. He was a political nuisance and executing him was a way to get rid of him tidily.

Cover from the edition I read.
 I'm in awe how Johnston could create characters with real depth in such few words. Alec, his mother, father, Jeremy, and Glendinning, are all perfectly realised and the reader could see them as real people. It is an incredible piece of skillful writing and I urge you to read this novel as it is literature at its finest with a damning look at the class system of the early 20th Century. Superb brilliant, tragic, sad, powerful. A novel that you will never forget. Its multiple layers are staggering from such a concise novel, and any literature lover will enjoy every aspect of this amazing novel.

 Highly recommended to all. A modern masterpiece.

 Amazon has this with 4 out of 5 stars from 9 reviews. It was also adapted to television in 1982 and starred Daniel-Day Lewis as Alec and Christopher Fairbank as Jeremy.


  1. I remember hearing about the TV series, good review.

  2. Thanks. I must admit to never having heard of novel or series before. I just picked this off the shelf because it was military related!