Perhaps Timothy Balding’s new novel, Homo Conscius, is a series of connected vignettes. This, at any rate, was my first impression. The chapters are short and many could stand on their own as short stories or collections of bons mots. By chapter four, I was jolted back to my youth, around 1962, when we were all pretending we understood the existentialism of Sartre’s The Age of Reason, the first in his The Roads to Freedom trilogy. I remember my cousin Wendy, who is a little younger than I, claimed to have read all three. That was the gauntlet for a fourteen year old, uncertain in puberty and baffled by his favourite drop-dead-gorgeous cousin. A pity Timothy Balding’s protagonist, Victor, wasn’t around to help me through that moment of teenage torture. I read my Sartre and pretended – to the bitter end. My experience with Balding’s first novel, Homo Conscius, was altogether different.
Sartre investigated decision making with respect to external dilemmas. Balding puts existentialism where it belongs – with real people, at one with their foibles and neuroses, and thus searching inwards. His hero, the intellectual retiree Victor, searches his soul, but not in a religious sense. Rock ‘n roll and ballad lyrics have often enough used the concept, ‘deep down inside, where you live.’ Victor’s thoughts and findings, ‘from deep down inside,’ are the content of Homo Conscius.
The novel is often pure philosophy and if that sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, then remember my description, ‘bons mots,’ and ‘vignettes’. Victor may well gaze at his belly button, but most of his questions and the answers he provides, are laced with acidic wit, delivered in stunningly elegant prose.
Victor has a foil – his parrot named Yorick. He is present whenever Victor needs someone at whom to preach. That is frequent and during the novel, we learn about Victor’s developing treatises on, ‘mass murder, love, hate, God, truth beauty, reality, crime and happiness’. Victor does admit, that his tendency to wordy philosophical diatribes, doesn’t find favour with his friends. Helen, his lover, finds them about as erotic as cold fish stew, and tells him impolitely that she isn’t in bed with him for his mind. Harry, his drinking buddy, is polite, but disinterested. Harry is a still water. That leaves Yorick, and himself. Yorick listens attentively, as every good parrot should, but is low on repartee. He learnt to say ‘bollocks,’ in the pet shop and uses it with perfect timing as Victor holds forth. Arguments with himself, earn poor Victor the correct response, although he claims his life is blighted by his urge to use words – all the time. One powerful example is when he decided to clear out the cupboard labelled, ‘Mother.’ He comes clean about his problems, which presumably date back 35 to 45 years. This is worth discussing. I believe that all parents leave their children with a sense of guilt to deal with. One always feels one could have done better. I wonder if mother-guilt, still haunting after 30 years, doesn’t shoot down Victor’s claim that the subconscious doesn’t exist? I put this to the author. He replied, ‘Victor has always been conscious of the problems with his mother. The sub-conscious doesn’t come into it.’
You see now, the fun and games to be had from this novel. An interesting idea from Timothy – I don’t buy it, but it is thought provoking, and that is the strength of his story.
Out of the blue, Victor discovers that governments think he may be useful. Could his theories enable agents to get inside the minds of possible terrorists? I was surprised how light heartedly Victor agreed to put his thoughts at their service. His actions must surely be out of vanity and hubris, or he is such a wonderful truth warrior, that he is prepared to take the risk? Or is he just naive? We will all have our interpretation. That scenarios can work on so many levels for different readers, is surely the sign of a great novel. The last piece of literature I said that about was Wuthering Heights.
At about this stage in the novel, we are introduced to the fact that Victor and Yorick like listening to Mahler. Then Kafka gets a mention and finally Dostoevsky. Mahler – one of the most tortured of famous composers, said of himself, ‘I am thrice homeless – as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.’ Victor, too, is swimming against the tide and running out of friends. He will soon be nowhere welcome. Truth warriors have their cross to carry. Kafka took torment to new heights in books such as Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle. This had to be the clue, I thought. Victor will suffer a Kafkaesque fate at the hands of MI6, unless he is he too smart for them, which takes us into James Bond territory. Or will he take the argument from Crime and Punishment and be so convinced of his own theories that he disregards the law to promote them?1
I was at the crisis point in the novel and clueless how Timothy Balding would resolve matters. Read Homo Conscius to find out.
What did I find so attractive in Victor’s character? He is a loner, despite having friends. He is prepared to stand out from the crowd in order to do the right thing. He preferred to work through the tough questions rather than spend a night in the sack with the long-suffering Helen. He is preoccupied with the worst crimes committed in the 20th century. How did these men put reason to one side and go off to murder innocents as part of a day at the office? The same moral dilemmas fascinate me. I have blogged on the Wannsee Conference2. Timothy Balding has moved on from blogs. His novel works out the dilemmas and their ethical solutions in a charming, witty and comprehensive way. Suddenly, we discover that philosophy has comedic elements, is fun and useful.
Is this a book to recommend? Whether you decide Victor is a self-righteous prig, or a humble man of absolute truths, you will like him. He makes big assumptions about what a friendship can withstand, and yet we forgive him, because he talks about those moments in our lives that can pain us, sometimes decades later, when we think of them. We have all been there. He works through his and shows us he is human and we can be human, too, despite the daft things we may have done.
OK! We never murdered on a massive scale. Despite our frailties and accumulated sin and error of a lifetime, we never opened the gas tap on millions of innocents.
‘Of course we didn’t,’ we remonstrate. ‘Who would get such an idea?’
‘Ordinary blokes like you and me,’ would be Victor’s sad answer. If you are a lover of thought-provoking wit and repartee, this is for you.
Order Timothy Balding’s new novel, Homo Conscius .
1 Clive La Pensée’s recent novel, The Last Stop, explores Dostoevsky’s moral dilemma from Crime and Punishment.
2 Wannsee Conference New London Writers blog from January 2016 on mass murder as another day at the office.