IT IS NOT UNIMAGINABLE. I suppose, that the Canadian novelist Timothy Findley's compulsively readable novel about fascism and treason, Famous Last Words, might become the political novel of the year. I think it probably won't, but in its first hundred or so pages, the hectic promise seems to ride high. I'd guess the publishers hope they've lucked into this year's The White Hotel, another novel that engages a great intellectual crisis of the early 20th century, sumptuously re- imagined 40 years later. D.M. Thomas' Freud would become Findley's Ezra Pound, facing the nightmare consequences of the path toward fascism his vision followed. Famous Last Words begins in this mode, but then comes . . . trouble. The book changes, and is located in a half-world between, on the one hand, a serious encounter with the totalitarian sickness, and on the other, a slightly shallow, slightly overlong, slightly scurrilous political thriller.
It might have made it. The book purports to be the dying memoirs of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. In literary history, Mauberley is an alter ego Ezra Pound created as the subject for two of his finest pre-war poems. Findley borrows the character from Pound, and makes him into an expatriate Poundian protege, a noted novelist who has followed Ezra into the byways of the fascist disaster. It's a slick conceit. Intellectually, Findley is obviously a very knowing man of the politico-esthetic world. The setting (Europe in general) is in its particulars wonderfully intricate: the German and Italian Alps as the Allies march north in March 1945. Treasonously compromised, in flight, Mauberley has his last meeting with Pound (in a portrait which made me cringe), then he runs--runs, ruined, to an abandoned hotel in the Tyrol, where he holes up to wait for the end, without paper and without hope, inscribing on the walls of an empty suite his testament of one man's engagement in the catastrophe of Europe. Then, inexplicably, just before the liberators arrive, he is killed.
It hardly could be better. The disappointment lies in the story on the walls. It's a shallow thing. Mauberley confesses he has been a member--trapped, in too deep --of a fascist cabal called "Penelope," a sort of proto- General's Plot, to rescue fascism--"true" fascism, I presume--from Hitler by replacing him with a junta using none other than the Duke of Windsor as a figurehead. And Hugh Selwyn Mauberley--see?--is none other than the Duchess of Windsor's oldest, dearest friend. So Mauberley turns go-between. What the artist is, too, see?
So Famous Last Words shifts its attention to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and away from Pound. Adventures chase one another. Tipped off that von Ribbentrop intends to kidnap the pair in Lisbon, Churchill sends commandos to rescue--or would it be counter- kidnap?--the almost royal couple. We get 50 pages of fireplay and shattering crystal. Safely in English hands, the duke and duchess are sent to the Bahamas. (In fact, the real duke served there, without distinction, as governor general during the war: "Elba," the duchess called it). In Findley's Bahamas, a heroic anti-fascist Italian poet skywrites "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin" over a glossy ducal garden party, then firebombs it. Pages of horror as the terrorized guests become animals. Later-- always abetted by Hugh--the duke and duchess peer into the dawn, waiting for the German submarine that is supposed to spirit them to their new lives as king and queen of the New Order.
Now of course none of this really happened. Still, it is based explicitly on real people, and that seems to me important. Not in any legal sense: Fiction should be free-- and in any case the real Duke of Windsor is dead and the duchess (we are told) is past caring. Nonetheless, these are not purely fictitious characers, and there is some slight historical basis for the fantasy. The real Duke of Windsor was, it seems, not only a stupid but a bigoted man, with sufficient fascist sympathies to make him unsuitable, to say the least, as king of England in its greatest crisis. After his abdication, he held a highly publicized meeting with Hitler he had no business ever permitting. Most ominously, captured German documents apparently suggest the Axis briefly did toy with inducing, even forcing, the duke to espouse Nazism with a view to returning to England as a quisling king when and if England fell. It is still unknown to what degree, if any at all, the real Duke of Windsor was party to this-- though of course any participation at all would have amounted to treason, and a far more serious case than ever charged against Ezra Pound.
Except we know what the real Pound did, and what he suffered for it. Between 1941 and 1943, Pound made highly propagandistic pro-fascist speeches over Rome radio, opposing United States involvement in the war. Hugh Kenner, Pound's greatest critic, says of them: "The details are violent, the rhetoric disordered, the phraseology intemperate." The attorney general thought them treasonous.
I won't--I can't--re-enter the aging tumult of the Pound controversy here--but it is the very real rock on which Famous Last Words shipwrecks. Put simply, Ezra Pound, real or imagined, offers novelistic depths the Duke and Duchess of Windsor do not. The motive for fascism in Findley's fantasy Windsors is plain, empty, conscienceless ambition. Perhaps it is the oldest story in the world, but it is also the shallowest. To keep it even fairly interesting, Findley has to resort to commando raids and firebombings and dicey sex. On the other hand, Ezra Pound's relation to the European disaster, however grotesque, contains the stuff of a great and tragic novel of ideas.
Despite its initial promise, this is precisely what Famous Last Words is not. The problem is partly Findley's fatal bemusement with the dreadful duke and duchess. More importantly his Mauberley's fall into fascism strikes this reader as not only without tragedy, but as quite simply false. This character is no deluded visionary at the end of the night, but a handwringing nice guy, who never endorses or even seems really to believe a single genuinely fascist idea, and who seems totally disabused by 1936. His does not seem an especially fascistic mind; it is merely second-rate. Impossible to imagine that, sane or crazy, Ezra Pound might have said this character "would become the greatest writer of his time." He's more like, let's say, W. Somerset Maugham: a celebrity and a celebrity hound, the smooth producer of at best pretty good, but never remotely great, books, the inventor of spicy international encounters among the palmettoes on terraces, while Casablanca fans turn within. Indeed, Findley's own description of Mauberley's first meeting with Wallis Warfield Simpson "in the lobby of the old Imperial Hotel in Shanghai," reads exactly like the opening of a Maugham novel. This may be fun, but this is also the level of the fun, and it can be dreary stuff after the heady promise of a great theme.