Something to Answer For

P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For was the winner of the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969. Newby published his first book, A Journey to the Interior in 1945. Something to Answer For was his seventeenth novel of the twenty-three he wrote. However, Newby is largely forgotten now, despite having won the Booker. In fact, this novel is largely out of print. When we formed the intention of reading the entire Booker List for this site, this work was the last we obtained, taking almost two months to arrive after a first supplier was unable to acquire a copy for a large Sydney bookstore.

However, when Newby won the Booker he was a successful and reasonably popular author. He edged out Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark to win and he is said to have outsold those authors. When he won, there was no ceremony as there is nowadays. He was posted a cheque for £5000 and given a silver statue which was later painted gold and used as a key holder at the door of the family home.

I suspect, having read only this one novel of his twenty-three, that part of Newby’s slide into obscurity lies in his perceived difficulty and subject matter. I read a number of reviews after I finished the novel and found that the difficulty of the novel was a recurring issue for readers. So, this is something that I will be discussing in this review.

The novel is set in Egypt, 1956, during the Suez Crisis. President Nasser nationalised the canal in July, thereby taking control of an extremely important asset from the British and French. The Egyptians offered compensation but the British and French suspected the move which would reduce their influence in the region, while the Egyptians baulked at the thought that Western countries wished to continue colonialism. Israel attacked Egypt after secret talks with England and France, perceiving Egypt as a possible threat, and England and France also invaded. America, concerned that Russia would take sides with Egypt, pressured England and France into a ceasefire and pursued a resolution through the United Nations.

This is the historical backdrop for Something to Answer For. The story’s protagonist, Jack Townrow, a former soldier in the British army, is returning to Egypt after receiving a letter from Jean Khoury, an English woman now widow to Elie Khoury, a Lebanese national living in Egypt. Townrow met and befriended them years before. Now Mrs Koury, or Mrs K. as she is mostly known, wants Townrow to investigate her husband’s death. She believes he has been murdered. But Townrow has his own agenda. He is a grifter, now living off the proceeds of a fund he has been charged with disbursing. A court has ordered the money cannot be distributed for the purposes for which it was collected, and Townrow is in charge of tracking down the donators and returning their money. Instead, he has made the fund a steady stream of income for himself simply by falsifying documentation of the “returns”. Now, he formulates a scheme to persuade Mrs K. to sign over her assets to him, on the assumption that she is English while he is Irish (he had an Irish mother) because the Egyptians are sure to confiscate English property in the weeks ahead, now that the canal has been nationalised.

However, things don’t quite go to plan for Townrow. In a stopover in Italy on his way to Egypt he meets an Israeli reporter who asks him (much in the style of the Ancient Mariner plying his story to all and sundry) why the British did not warn the Jews against getting on the German trains in World War II. In effect, the reporter blames the English for the magnitude of the Holocaust. Townrow cannot accept that this is true, but is nevertheless bothered by the implication that England is a country without higher ideals:

In the U.K. you trusted people. In the main you took it for granted people acted decently. You made an assumption about the man who sat next to you on the Tube. You didn’t know for sure. You just assumed. Well, if you didn’t make assumptions like that how could you trust in the government? Townrow wanted to tell Mrsk K that trust in big things started with personal relations…

Of course, this thought is ironic, given that Townrow plans to swindle Mrs K, but much of the perceived difficulty of the novel centres around the problem of Townrow as an unreliable narrator. As the novel progresses it is apparent that Townrow has little grip on reality. He forgets important events, changes details when retelling, confuses dreams for reality and visa versa, confuses one character with another and even has trouble remembering exactly who he is and his own nationality. Having told Mrs K that he is Irish, he then doubts himself and wonders where his passport is, which would solve the issue. In fact, at times, Townrow is not even sure if he is still alive. While the novel is written in third person, it is told exclusively from Townrow’s point of view. As a result, the story is disorientating for the reader.

Another difficulty for modern audiences is that the book reflects outdated attitudes. The relationship Townrow forms with Leah, daughter to the lawyer representing Mrs K.’s affairs, verges on abusive. Townrow barely knows her and yet he walks naked from the bathroom to have a conversation with her. He forces himself upon her more than once. It is difficult, at times, to know whether Townrow’s sexism reflects his character or the implicit attitudes of the era. The same goes for racist attitudes towards the Egyptians. Churchill expressed a belief that Egyptians were an inferior race, and this attitude finds casual expression in the novel, also.

I think some of the responses I read to the novel have suffered from an attempt to explain away Townrow’s confused state. Early in the story he is beaten up, suffering a head injury. While this might explain at the plot level why Townrow confuses many matters, it does not explain the importance of Townrow’s difficulties for what the novel has to say about issues of personal and national morality. The belief that Townrow’s problems begin with the beating belies the importance of the meeting with the Israeli reporter, or indeed, the significance that a comprehensive plot is almost impossible to formulate as one reads. This aspect of the novel reminded me of Kafka and the pointlessness of, for example, trying to explain exactly what Joseph K. may have been arrested for or the labyrinthine machinations of the legal system which holds him. The whole point is to be confused as he is, surely. I wondered whether Newby, himself, may have been influenced by Kafka in this aspect of the novel, since much of Townrow’s confusion is associated with Mrs K – surely a nod to Kafka – and the confused story concerning her husband’s funeral, which has several versions, including one involving a cross-dressing Greek smuggling guns to Cyprus!

I think much of the problem of Townrow’s confused perceptions speaks to the question of moral culpability. It is easier to justify one’s actions when one is sure not only of reality, but of one’s lies. Moral questioning arises from having one’s narratives challenged and arriving at uncertainty. For instance, when Britain’s integrity is challenged by the reporter, Townrow finds it difficult to reconcile his conception of a country he believes is a moral leader with one that might act improperly. There is a direct correlation between the moral culpability of a country and the moral culpability of an individual. Townrow has rationalised his own actions for so long, believing, for instance, that the fund he milks is of no consequence to anyone, which is only a step away from the grifting of people like Mrs K by more direct means.

For me, this seemed to be the importance of Townrow’s dissonant narrative. Before Egypt he had lived his life assured of his purpose. But with the challenge of the Israeli, his beating, his deepening desire for Leah and her father’s moral objections to his plans for Mrs K, Townrow struggles to adjust his narrative and to understand his place and purpose. With the deepening insight into the Western control of Egypt, witnessing violence and death as the Western forces invade Port Said, Townrow is forced to face his own morality. I think this is where the title of the novel is interesting. It acknowledges moral complicity, even if its “Something” suggests a confused state: a mind not certain to where and to what extent that complicity extends; merely a sense that some effort must be made. He says to Leah,

You stopped me from doing something that shouldn’t be done. Well, you’ve got to make a start, haven’t you? I mean you’ve got to start with yourself. That’s all you know about. So you’ve got to start patiently putting one foot right and another foot right. That’s what I’m thanking you for.

This is what makes the ending of the novel interesting. The exhumation of Elie’s coffin to bury it at sea becomes farcical, but it is a desperate attempt by Townrow to reconcile his competing moral obligations to Mrs K, who will not leave Egypt where her husband is buried, and to Leah whom he desires to accompany if he can, so that he might be judged a moral man. There is ultimately a futility in Townrow’s morality laid bare by the presence of the British fleet – his microcosm reflected in the macrocosm, so to speak – not yet checked by the American intervention, through which their small group sails.

Even if the reader is left to wonder what has happened, what it all means, this is an entertaining yet unsettling novel. A novel which had merely retold the Suez Crisis through a bland narrative could not have achieved what this novel does. It’s aimed at a Western audience, naturally, predominantly British, I would assume, and its unsettling, dissonant narrative is enough to challenge entrenched attitudes and a national sense of entitlement. The Suez Crisis is said to mark the end of British dominance and its empire, and this novel challenges the moral assumptions that sustained that empire. A recommended read if you can get a copy of it.

A concise history of the Suez Crisis
This video was made in 2008 to celebrate 40 years of the Booker Prize and so is somewhat out of date. But it starts with a short excerpt showing P.H.Newby and continues with other winners over the prize's first 40 years.
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The Suez Crisis
During the crisis ships were sunk by Anglo French bombing while others were scuttled by the Egyptians to block the canal for the British and French
This trophy was presented for the first five years of the Booker Prize. Newby kept his by the door and used it to hold house keys
The cheque for £5000 for winning the inaugural Booker Prize. It was posted to Newby. There was no ceremony.

Townrow was not crazy. He'd died and risen again, that's all, in a temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade approximately (but there's been damn little shade) and humidity 95, say, and so much light coming down from the great cavernous, empty sky that it flooded his closed eyes with blood. He could see the blood washing through the lids of his closed eyes. He never found Elie's island but there were villages with palm trees, dark shops run by Greeks with barrels of pickles, earthenware jars of water he could pick up when he pleased and take a swig. He lived on this bench before the saint's tomb.

Something to Answer For, page 129