Wednesday, 25 February 2004

Len Deighton: Bomber (1970)

Edition: Arrow, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1224

I have always found this the hardest of Deighton's novels to get into, partly because it is so unrelentingly serious, but mainly because its beginning is poor. The first chapter in particular has some really terrible, clunking dialogue, and the mechanics of introducing his large cast of characters are not well handled. Even further into the novel, the prose is ponderous and Bomber is very slow moving for a thriller.

The idea of Bomber is to describe a twenty-four hours in the air war towards the end of the Second World War, without demonising the Germans or idolising the British. The airmen on both sides, in particular, are presented as normal people under a lot of stress. (Some of the ancillary characters are a bit more stereotyped, like the German secret policeman who tries to prove that one of the fliers is sabotaging the war effort, but even he has a less formalised counterpart among the British officers.)

Part of the reason for the ponderousness of Bomber is the literary weight of what Deighton is trying to do - conveying the brutality of war, the waste of a generation of young men, while making his portrayal evenhanded with the reader caring for people on both sides. The unpleasantness of twentieth century warfare and its wastefulness is a common theme from All Quiet on the Western Front to M.A.S.H., but it is far harder to think of other examples of war novels which do not just concentrate on one side. In many cases, the ability this gives to have a small number of central characters makes the writing more effective than it is here - the main characters in All Quiet on the Western Front form a single platoon of German soldiers, and M.A.S.H. never looks far beyond just two doctors. By contrast, there are dozens of characters in Bomber of approximately equal importance, which causes serious difficulties - they tend to be introduced with dull and lengthy biographical sketches, holding up the plot, and it is hard for the reader to remember who is who. (This second is a problem even in War and Peace, the most famous "cast of thousands" novel.) I certainly had the impression that Deighton's ambition here overreached his technique. Nevertheless, there are things to admire about the novel. Bomber is meticulously researched, with close attention to detail. (In current TV terminology, Bomber would definitely belong to the genre of docudrama.)

Thankfully, Bomber livens up a bit once the planes are airborne, about halfway through the five hundred pages. (The bombers being British, the raid is a night-time one; the Americans who carried out daylight raids are not even mentioned by Deighton.) For me, this was really too little too late.

Bomber is massively ambitious, which has led to many aspects of it better done by other authors. The touchstones novels about Second World War bombing are both American: Catch 22 about the stresses and strains of being a pilot, and Slaughterhouse 5 about the effects of saturation bombing (as experienced by P.O.W.s in Dresden). Both these novels are much more effective at conveying the horrors of war and the ways in which people cope with them; both are darkly humorous. Black humour is usually something of a Deighton trademark, but here it seems to have been squeezed out by the serious nature of his intentions.

To me, this novel is mainly of interest as a piece of historical research. Bomber is far less successful as a work of fiction, and remains the nearest to unreadable of any of Deighton's novels.

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