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The Oldest Confession

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Contents

The cover of a 1965 Four Square edition.

The Oldest Confession, published by Appleton-Century-Crofts in 1958, was the first of 25 novels by the American political novelist and satirist Richard Condon. A tragicomedy about the attempted theft of a masterpiece from a museum in Spain, it engendered, along with other early works such as The Manchurian Candidate, a relatively brief Condon cult. Superficially it is what today would be called a caper story or caper novel, a subspecies of the crime novel—generally a light-hearted romp in which a gang of disparate characters bands together to pull off a substantial robbery from a seemingly impregnable site, the acknowledged master of which was the late Donald E. Westlake.

In spite of adhering to most of the informal rules of this genre, however, which include alternating comedy with scenes of dramatic tension and suspense and always building towards a powerful and surprising climax, Condon ends up thumbing his nose at most of these conventions and, for the last third of the book, it is clearly out-and-out tragedy that he is writing rather than comedy or straight entertainment. By then it has become apparent that, throughout the book, he has been writing about the human condition and its perils rather than merely regaling the reader with the story of a outrageous theft, no matter how ingenious its details.

With this initial novel, Condon clearly laid out the parameters for his next 24: a fast-moving, mostly tongue-in-cheek, semi-thriller narrative aimed at the general reader, peppered with occasional moments of grotesque horror and violence, all recounted by an omniscient narrator with a keen sense of irony and sardonicism, and always overlaid, to a greater or lesser degree, by Condon's very deeply felt attitudes about America, business, money, greed, ethics, and morality.

Origins of the book

In 1955 Condon, then 40 years old and a longtime New York publicist and Hollywood employee of various studios, was the publicity agent for The Pride and the Passion, a film starring Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren being shot in Spain. As he writes in his memoir, And Then We Moved to Rossenarra, he was present at a scene being filmed in the ancient rectory of the Escorial, the massive palace and cathedral outside Madrid. The enormous lights needed to film the scene [1]

"revealed dozens upon dozens of great masterpieces of paintings that had not been seen for centuries, hung frame touching frame—the work of Goya, Velasquez, the great Dutch masters, and the most gifted masters of the Italian Renaissance...The idea of masterpieces of Spanish painting hanging in stone castles all over Spain, high and invisible in the darkness, stayed with me and gradually formed itself into a novel called The Oldest Confession....

Back in New York, Condon began turning his initial concept into a screenplay—until his wife pointed out, correctly, that he was writing it in the past tense instead of the present, which is obligatory for screenplays, and that it should be turned into a novel. Condon followed her advice and the book was published to favorable reviews not long afterwards.[2]

Publication and the movies

Even before it was published in April of 1958, twelve film companies had initiated talks about purchasing rights to it, a highly unusual amount of interest for an unpublished first novel. In a brief mention in The New York Times about the forthcoming book, "Condon explained without divulging details of the plot, [the theme] 'Is one of need. Half the need, love. The other half, greed.'" [3] The movie version was released in 1962 as The Happy Thieves, starring Rex Harrison and Rita Hayworth, and was dismissed by The New York Times as a "limp herring" of "the devastating first novel." [4]

Title

In the course of his career, Condon frequently quoted verses or phrases from a work called The Keener's Manual,[5] in at least six instances deriving the title of that particular book from something in the manual. The manual is, however, as noted in greater detail in the Richard Condon article, an imaginary book whose lines have all been created by Condon himself. The epigraph to this first novel, which appears on the title page of the first American hardback edition, reads in its entirety:[6]

The Oldest Confession
Is one of Need,
Half the need Love,
The other half Greed

These, of course, are much the same words that Condon uses in speaking to A.H. Weiler of the New York Times as quoted just above.

The story

Goya's Dos de Mayo, the object of James Bourne's plot

The dozens of great masterpieces that Condon had glimpsed hanging in the darkness of the Escorial became, in The Oldest Confession, paintings hanging in the main residence of Doña Blanca Conchita Hombria y Arias de Ochoa y Acebal, Marquesa de Vidal, Condesa de Ocho Pinas, Vizcondesa Ferri, Duquesa de Dos Cortes, a 29-year-old beauty married to an aged degenerate who, upon his death, becomes the wealthiest woman in Spain. The long-forgotten paintings are the object of an American criminal named James Bourne, who has leased a hotel in Madrid for three and a half years, during which time he has successfully stolen numerous other valuable paintings from across Spain. His method is simple, though arduous and dangerous in execution: he replaces the original paintings with undetectable forgeries executed by Jean Marie Calvert, a Parisian artist who is the world's greatest copyist.

Painted in Paris, the reproductions are brought into Spain by Bourne's wife, an upper-class young American girl named Eve Lewis who loves Bourne in spite of his unabashed criminality. In the first few dozen pages of the book Bourne successfully steals, with no twinges of remorse, three masterpieces from the castle of his supposed friend, the Duchess of Dos Cortes, and arranges for his wife to smuggle them to Paris for a highly profitable sale. When she arrives in Paris, however, she discovers that the mailing tube in which the paintings were being carried is now empty. The rest of the book is the narrative of their downhill path, as well as that of most of those people unlucky enough to have found themselves in their orbit.

Bourne has always fancied himself The Master Criminal; other criminals, however, equally intelligent, lurk, and the downhill path for all of the book's unfortunate characters begins when Bourne is coerced into accepting a seemingly impossible task: to steal one of the world's most famous masterpieces, the Dos de Mayo, or Second of May or Charge of the Marmelukes, by Francisco de Goya, from its tightly guarded quarters in the national museum of Spain, the Prado. Adding to the difficulty of the task imposed on him is the sheer size of the painting: it measures an enormous eight feet high by 11 feet wide.[7]

By the last page of what has apparently begun as a light-hearted caper story, all of the principle characters, and some of the minor ones, are either dead, among the walking-dead, or incarcerated for life. The very last words of the book are an apt summation: "His ruined face stared. She screamed. She screamed again. She could not stop screaming."

The characters

Like most of the characters in Condon's books, those in The Oldest Confession have little pretension to being true-to-life: they are, for the most part, colorfully drawn grotesques or funny hats. One of Condon's great talents, however, is imbuing even his most exaggerated characters with enough life-like or sympathetic features that their trials and often hideously unpleasant fates can be deeply poignant.

James Bourne, the protagonist, and anti-hero of the book is, curiously enough, perhaps the least interesting person in the book, a superficially likable character, tall, very physically powerful, an intelligent American in his middle 30s who straightforwardly enunciates one of Condon's recurring themes: that all businessmen are, by their very nature, both immoral and criminal. Bourne has learned this by working as a young man in his father's insurance business for a number of years; he has been driven ineluctably to the conclusion that all businessmen are, by definition, crooks and that it is, therefore, no crime at all to steal from them, and, by a perhaps dubious philosophical extension, even from those who are actually friends of yours. The only truly honest people, he states throughout the book, are those who are avowedly criminal to begin with. But in spite of Bourne's brooding introversion, and his apparently genuine love for his wife, he is, we discover as the book progresses, a totally self-absorbed and totally amoral person, a man ready to destroy, through his absolute callousness, obliviousness, and solipsism, all those around him. In this he is the forerunner of a number of later Condon "heroes" in books to come, the most notable of whom is probably Captain Colin Huntington RN (ret.), the cashiered Royal Navy captain who is the monomaniacally self-centered protagonist of the 1972 novel Arigato, and who, in spite of his stylishness, elegance, and cultivation, is directly responsible by the end of the book for the deaths of scores of innocent people.

Bourne, the protagonist, is far from appearing in every scene. The number of other characters, however, is relatively small. Like Bourne, who, at least in his own mind, is the world's greatest criminal genius, many of them are also superlatives in their own right:

  • Bourne's wife, Eve Lewis, a young American who has come to Paris and, through a number of lovers, quickly learned a number of languages. After becoming Bourne's lover and criminal accomplice, she now travels with a large number of passports in various names.
  • Jean Marie Calvert, the unequaled French copyist. He is a vital cog in Bourne's plan to steal the Dos de Mayo, but, just as success is at hand, suddenly panics at a crucial moment, thereby derailing the robbery and leading to his own ignominious end.
  • His wife, Lalu, who is barely sketched in beyond: "Lalu looked like a nursery doll. Her voice was higher than a dog's whistle... The sounds she made were like a well filled with drunken canaries."
  • The nonpareil Duchess of Dos Cortes and her lover:
  • Cayetano Jiminez, the world's greatest matador.
  • Homer Pickett, an absurd, compulsively talkative backwoods American congressman from downstate Illinois who is, improbably, the world's greatest authority on Spanish paintings.
  • The congressman's drunken, and sexually frustrated, wife who sees life through a glass of absinthe.
  • Lawyer Chern, a Swiss lawyer who makes a brief but important appearance before coming to a gruesome end at the hands of James Bourne, who locks him for what is intended to be a few days into a Parisian cellar and then, under the stress of other, more pressing, matters, forgets about him.
  • Various minor characters such as English gangsters, Spanish customs officials and lawyers, and employees of Bourne's hotel.

And finally:

  • Dr. Victoriano Muñoz, Marqués de Villabra, a wealthy, half-mad Spanish nobleman obsessed by injustices supposedly done to his family a hundred years earlier by the painter Francisco de Goya. A cartoon character drawn almost utterly without plausibility, he is obsessive about his mustache, its looks and its long nightly maintenance, and carries a topaz cat named Montes draped about him as a permanent part of his persona. In spite of his substantial wealth, Muñoz feels that he lives in a state of impoverishment caused by Goya and that he must take revenge against the great, but long-dead painter. Apparently only an minor and inconsequential figure in the opening chapters of the book, he is, in fact, both the villain of the novel and, in some ways, its most important character, for it is he who, unbeknownst to Bourne and the others, first sets the plot in motion and then intrudes, at various moments, to keep it going in ways that are generally surprising to the reader. In doing so, he causes, either wittingly or not, the deaths of a number of the other characters, but it still comes as something of a shock when he himself is suddenly beaten to death in his own luxurious quarters by a woman he has, with total indifference, brought to grief. As Condon himself wrote some years later,
...Victoriano Munoz certainly deserved to die for what he had done in my first novel....The admirable Duchess of Dos Cortes, who murdered him, was very religious, and I was her old deity, poor woman. She implored me for permission to kill him for his most heinous crimes against her, and I had to so rule.[8]

Four missing paragraphs

Strange as it seems, the first American hardback edition, does not contain the final four paragraphs of the novel as published in a 1965 British paperback edition. Whether they were omitted deliberately or by error is unknown at this time. Here are the four paragraphs in their entirety:

She [Eve Lewis] left in the [Duchess's] Daimler at two o'clock the following morning. They arrived at Irún at ten minutes after eight. As the seeress had predicted, her passport was stamped with quite some deference and they rolled across the bridge into France.

She had breakfast in Bayonne. While she ate a croissant and drank a café au lait she read that Jean Marie had hanged himself in his cell. She could only remember the words to the Lord's Prayer and since she knew no other she sat with her head in her hands and said the Lord's Prayer once, twice, then three times.

She spent the night in Vendome. She reached Paris quite early the next morning. She had been drinking steadily all the way, but she was not drunk.

The apartment she and Bourne had lived in seemed alien and changed. She needed a brandy. The decanter was empty. She crossed the living room, then the kitchen. She opened the cellar door. A stench assailed her. She looked down. Chern's dead hand reached. His ruined face stared. She screamed. She screamed again. She could not stop screaming.[9]

Critical appraisal

Gerald Walker, in the Sunday book review section of the New York Times of June 22, 1958, wrote a favorable review called "Urbane Insiders" that somehow managed to completely avoid giving his readers much more than even a cursory clue as to what the book was about. One of his paragraphs (omitted here) was devoted to another, earlier work by another author about art forgeries, but, aside from that hint, his review is little more than generalities. It was, nevertheless, a fine inaugural reception in a most important media outlet for a hitherto unknown 43-year-old author:

Unlike most other first novels, Richard Condon's is a fully controlled job of writing rather than an ardent grope. Written throughout with painstaking grace, not one scene or description is ever thrown away or treated in a commonplace manner. Everything is handled, and handled well, from the viewpoint of the cosmopolitan insider who knows everything there is to know about such urbane things as art critics, European customs inspectors, wire services, bullfights and fine food and drink.

And yet the one thing the author is unable to convey is any feeling of depth, of real mortality unfolding before the reader. The deterioration of James Bournes, Ivy League master criminal, is singularly unmoving even as one stunningly dramatic scene or ingenious plot-turn follows another....

If, the next time out, he can manage to open up and write more personally without marring his exceedingly refined sense of literary form, then we shall really be seeing a book. As things are now, no apologies are necessary to anyone for this is quite an impressive debut.[10]

Charles Poore, however, writing two months earlier in the daily Times, contented himself with a long synopsis of the story, finding "...a murderous sort of zaniness to Mr. Condon's plot" and remarking that "With a technique that requires all surprises and revelations to be undermined by fresh surprises and revelations, Mr. Condon spins everyone deeper and deeper into the plot." [11]

Time magazine, the leading mid-brow American weekly for most of the 20th century, did not review The Oldest Confession. Over the next 30 years, however, they mentioned it at least six times, always favorably, and frequently as containing superior qualities that Condon's later novels generally failed to meet:

  • In 1960 they called it "fine, mordant". [12]
  • In 1961 they wrote admiringly that, "A Condon novel has the sound and shape of a bagful of cats. In The Oldest Confession, The Manchurian Candidate and Some Angry Angel, Condon garnered fans with accounts, written in messianic exasperation, of criminal endeavor, fate's falling cornices, widespread venality...." [13]
  • In 1971 they cited the "foaming manias" of The Oldest Confession, and made the assessment that, "Condon was never a satirist: he was a riot in a satire factory. He raged at Western civilization and every last one of its works." [14]
  • In 1974, in yet another unfavorable review of his latest novel, they wrote: "His early books, The Oldest Confession, The Manchurian Candidate and A Talent for Loving, are among the maddest funny novels of the last couple of decades. They seemed to have been written by Mephistopheles, raucous with glee at the insane excesses of the human creature." [15]
  • In 1977 they grudgingly admitted that, for his latest novel, The Abandoned Woman, "Condon's style, which has seemed preachy and sodden in recent years, achieves some of the snap and malice that enlivened such earlier works as The Oldest Confession and The Manchurian Candidate." [16]
  • In 1988, 30 years after his inaugural novel, they wrote, in a review of the third Prizzi novel, "In Condon's mad early novels—The Oldest Confession, The Manchurian Candidate—marvelous characters seethed with venality and obsession." [17]

Stylistic characteristics and Condonian quirks

  • The novel offers first glimpses of many of the traits and stylistic tricks that were typical of Condon's later novels, among them, as the playwright George Axelrod once put it, "the madness of his similies, the lunacy of his metaphors". A selection of these from the opening pages:
The duchess was... a tribal yo-yo on a string eight hundred years long....[18]
Bourne always sat uncommonly still... a monument to his own nerves which bayed like bloodhounds at the moon of his ambition.[19]
...the giant gestures of throwing the ball from the long baskets as Van Gogh might have tried to throw off despair only to have it bound back at him from some crazy new angle.[20]
  • Also making a debut was Condon's delight in creating long lists of madcap and strangely juxaposed items such as:
...the dutchess [inherited] the ownership of approximately eighteen per cent of the population of Spain inclusive with farms, mines, factories, breweries, houses, forests, rocks, vineyards and holdings in eleven countries of the world including shares in a major league baseball club in North America, an ice cream company in Mexico, quite a few diamonds in South Africa, a Chinese restaurant on Rue François 1er in Paris, a television tube factory in Manila, and in geisha houses in Nagasaki and Kobe. [21]
  • Most of Condon's novels feature brief appearances, or sometimes only off-stage mentions, of characters named after real-life friends of the author. In a number of books, for instance, a character named Keifetz appears, named apparently for Robert Keifetz, a New York City author who wrote a novel about a major league baseball player called The Sensation—that novel was dedicated to Condon. In The Oldest Confession, a character has lunch in a Paris bistro and briefly meets two people playing chess at the bar, "Buchwald and Nolan, newspaper and airline peons respectively." Buchwald is certainly Art Buchwald, the celebrated newspaper columnist and humorist, who, at the time of the book's publication, was still working for The International Herald-Tribune, which was published in Paris, where Condon had also lived during the 1950s. The identity of Nolan, however, remains a mystery.[22]
  • In spite of the admiring statement of the Times reviewer quoted earlier that "Condon's is a fully controlled job of writing rather than an ardent grope. Written throughout with painstaking grace, not one scene or description is ever thrown away," Condon does, however, occasionally slip into pretentious, emotionally overheated, prose, a trait that would characterise his latter works as well. Early in the book, for instance, in a paragraph discussing "criminality", in which, with typical Condon brio, he compares the kind of "infantile discipline" that a master criminal needs to that of a small boy "who will work to remember baseball batting averages back to Napoleon Lajoie," he goes on to write:
"It is greed with a social sense removed because what is there to be taken must be taken by the criminal consistent with his inner resources, eliminating envy, a much smaller sin." [23]
It is hard to find much real meaning in this.
  • Also typical of later Condon works is his precise detailing of the peripheral deaths and injuries to innocent bystanders caused by some particularly careless or coldblooded act committed by one of the characters, sometimes by the book's sympathetically drawn protagonist. Dr. Muñoz of The Oldest Confession is far from sympathetic—he is repellent even—and when he sets out to create an "extraordinary diversion", one that will instantly have all of Madrid buzzing while Bourne carries out the actual theft of the Goya painting, he makes himself even more detestable. After carrying out the first step of the diversion demanded by Bourne:
The crowd rioted at the bull ring.... Two children and one woman were trampled to death; twenty-six persons were injured, nine seriously. Two men, seated sixty yards apart in separate sections of the plaza, had been pointed at as having thrown the knife but miraculously had been saved from the mob by courageous police.[24]
  • Finally, we have the first mentions of a phrase that is more closely associated with The Manchurian Candidate than this book and that may also have appeared in other works by Condon. On page 142 James Bourne is at his grandiloquent worst as he once again tries to justify his criminality to Eve: "I am you and you are me and what can we do for the salvation of each other?"[25]. Two hundred pages later, as the book comes to its tragic conclusion, one broken woman tries to console another with an equally long-winded speech that ends with, "I am you and you are me and what have we done to each other?"[26] A year later, with the publication of the book that was to make Condon famous, we find, on a frontis page of The Manchurian Candidate, two separate epigraphs, one supposedly from the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, and the other, shorter one, from The Keener's Manual: "I am you and you are me and what have we done to each other?"[27]

Notes

  1. And Then We Moved to Rossenarra: or, The Art of Emigrating, by Richard Condon, Dial Press, New York, 1973, second printing, page 147
  2. ibid, page 150
  3. The New York Times, February 9, 1958, On Local Movie Fronts, by A. H. Weiler, a friend of Condon's, whose name is used frequently for minor characters throughout Condon's works
  4. Ibid. February 5, 1962, Screen: 'Happy Thieves'; Appears on Bill with 'Season of Passion'
  5. For a website about "The Keener's Manual", see http://tegularius.org/keener.html
  6. The Oldest Confession, Richard Condon, first American hardback, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., New York, 1958 Library of Congress Card Number 58-8662. A 1965 British paperback edition (The Oldest Confession, Richard Condon, paperback edition, Four Square, London, 1965), which includes four paragraphs of text on the final page that are not in the American hardback edition, does not quote this epigraph anywhere, thereby making the title meaningless to the reader
  7. Ibid. page 182
  8. Richard Condon, writing in "Endpaper, A Confession of Multiple Homicide", The New York Times, November 30, 1975
  9. The Oldest Confession, Richard Condon, paperback edition, Four Square, London, 1965, page 254
  10. "Urbane Insiders," by Gerald Walker, The New York Times, June 22, 1958, at [1]
  11. Charles Poore, The New York Times, May 1, 1958, at [2]
  12. Time magazine, "Mixed Fiction", March 28, 1960, at [3]
  13. Time magazine, "A Shortage of Cats", July 21, 1961, at [4]
  14. Time magazine, "Cheese", March 4, 1971, at [5]
  15. Time magazine, "Obscurity Now", June 24, 1974, at [6]
  16. Time magazine, "Royal Flush", May 30, 1977, at [7]
  17. Time magazine, "Bookends", September 19, 1988, at [8]
  18. The Oldest Confession, Richard Condon, first American hardback, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., New York, 1958, page 4
  19. Ibid. page 7
  20. Ibid. page 13
  21. Ibid. pages 107-108
  22. Ibid. page 119
  23. Ibid. pages 35-81
  24. Ibid. pages 227
  25. Ibid. pages 142
  26. Ibid. pages 142
  27. The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon, American paperback edition, N.A.L. Signet Books, New York, fifth printing, November, 1962, frontis page

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