'Diabolus Ex Machina': Manipulation and Masterly Intrigue in James Kennaway's Some Gorgeous Accident

Karla Benske (Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow)



BOLFRY.[...] The drama will revolve about him and ... ah, yes ... his lady wife. As I had nearly forgotten all about her, she is probably the key to the whole business. There, my dear friends, are the Dramatis Personae. We have now ...
COHEN. Where do you come in?
BOLFRY. I am the Devil from the Machine. Here we have our persons in the play.'[1]

In James Bridie's play Mr Bolfry introduces himself as the Devil from the Machine, master of drama, pulling the strings of all the characters involved. Is that how a 'diabolus ex machina' can be defined? The deus ex machina is an utterly unexpected mechanical device, which saves the hero or heroine at the very last minute. Mr Bolfry's statements suggest that the Devil from the Machine instigates the action which causes the hero or heroine's distress in the first place. And how does this relate to James Kennaway's novel Some Gorgeous Accident?


At first, James Kennaway's novel Some Gorgeous Accident reads like a classical love triangle, with the betrayed James Link planning revenge against his best friend, Dr Fiddes, and his ex-girlfriend, Susan Steinberg. However, within the first paragraph, devilish features are attributed to James Link, lending a supernatural edge to the story:

Link's love, his speech, his actions, why even his thoughts had overtones of violence; of pain experienced and pain inflicted purposely. He was a man who arrested attention and invited passion with dangerous facility; dangerous because, as he welcomed life, seized it by both hands and pulled it in the door, he let destruction in as well.[...] were his smile ever to have been caught aptly by a painter, then viewers of the completed head and shoulder portrait would have been tempted to say, 'That man Link must have a clubfoot; or a hump, maybe; or withered hand ...' And in the end, serious people did not sympathize with Link because he had guts or humour[...] but because they marked in him what they perceived in every cripple: a creature they felt first repulsed by then drawn toward; namely that naked, cornered, confused and humiliated child: self.'

Is this image reason enough to see James Link as a devil? This perspective is highlighted by the choice of the name 'Link'. It not only means any separate rings, loops, or pieces that connect or make up a chain, but it was formerly used to describe a torch used to light dark streets. Therefore, Link represents Lucifer, the angel of light as well as a demonic master who creates a chain of plots. The quotation also establishes a psychological dimension by mentioning 'that naked, cornered, confused and humiliated child: self'. Right from the beginning, supernatural and psychological aspects of Link's character are paralleled. The question remains whether a close reading of the novel will justify such an interpretation.

The Triangle

Some Gorgeous Accident centres on a love triangle. The characters involved are James Link, Richard Fiddes and Susan Steinberg. Link who has already been mentioned before is a famous war photographer, now resting on his past glory. Originally from Belfast he prefers not to mention his Northern-Irish background, but calls his mother occasionally in moments of crisis.[3] He met Susan Steinberg, an American journalist now working for a glossy women's magazine in London, whilst staying in New York for a few months. He left her when the relationship became too intimate; denying the fact that he was falling in love with her. While working in India he encountered Dr Richard Fiddes who now practises medicine in a surgical clinic for the poor in London.

Susan Steinberg is introduced as 'The Issue', the description of her appearance defines her as a sexual object:

She was slight and dark haired and pale but with great little knockers - breasts being for mothers.[4]

Moreover, the summary of her past love life stresses her doll-like existence:

So the boys took her up. She was seized, adopted, driven about by a big, beautiful Bullingdon boy[...] Later she dumped him for a belles-lettred Soho crook who hit her about - [5]

Towards the end of the novel she sums up her lack of substance. It is the starting point of her realisation that she was used by Link, which will finally enable her to liberate herself:

'God knows who I'm meant to be now. I tried the other thing. I tried to stop drifting.[...] and so became, I suppose, someone else. I'm not going back to being Link's Doll. I'm not ever going back to that.'[6]

Fiddes' character remains oblique and appears to be self-absorbed. Although he is preoccupied with his reputation and his stance in society, he appears to be a good man, doctor for the poor, always polite and never angry:

Fiddes was a tall, English Englishman with thick, blond eyebrows, who said he was maybe Scots, the way Englishmen do. He was young, too damned young, but occasionally something in his face made it seem that he had suffered more pain than all his patients put together - and there's the English bit. [7]

Fiddes provides an ideal counterpoint to the demonic Link. They are two sides of the same coin or, in other words, an Apollonian character and a Dionysian character, juxtaposed to enhance the intrigue of this triangle. As such they enjoy a very special friendship:

they had a great thing going. Two loners; well matched, ill met. Link trusted Richard David Fiddes; maybe the only one he trusted altogether.' [8]

Later Link tells Fiddes,

You're my partner. No women, no war, no God can break that up.' And Fiddes was glad about that: Link was his only friend.[9]

Both keep discussing their friendship time and again. However, there is a slight edge to their interaction, which contradicts all the declarations of love and friendship between them. Is this a love-hate relationship from Link's point of view? The only apparent reason so far is envy:

Born: Seven Years after Link. There's a scandal, for a start.
Height: Two inches taller than Link. Outrageous.
Weight: Six pounds lighter than Link. There were doubtless other comparable and vital measurements. Oh, but you're a loser, Link.[10]

Fiddes is successful, respected, and works in a profession, which allows him to help people. Hence, he stands for everything that Link has lost. James Link rests on his laurels. The middle-aged photojournalist sees Fiddes as his lost younger self, so much so that his inferiority complex towards his friend forces him into a destructive competition. Link enters a gamble for Susie's love. It is this competitive action, which makes Link feel alive. In this sense Some Gorgeous Accident is indeed

[a] bitter exploration[...] of individuals who are pushed to extremes through circumstances or who test themselves against circumstances by creating extreme situations.[11]

Link is testing human nature, enquiring whether good or evil will win. It appears that Link acts as the antagonist and Fiddes as the unsuspecting protagonist in this pursuit of Susie.


Following his nature of embracing life and the destruction that goes along with it, Link performs the opening move. After repeatedly praising Susie in conversations with Fiddes, he deliberately sets them up by asking his friend to look after Susan for one night and take her to the airport on the next day:

Then Link handed over the air ticket he'd booked for her that afternoon[...]. He kissed her on the cheek as if he trusted her; kissed her like a husband does; maybe so that Fiddes would read and mark, at any rate. Which of course he did, and felt bad. And Susie didn't like it either.
Then, snapping his fingers, toora-loora-loora, Link walked out of the place. Why not put them to bed, son? Why not do that?[12]

8 Some allege that James Kennaway's characters are unsympathetic. In his article, Duncan McAra writes that 'the characters fascinate but fail to move the reader.'[13] The characters may not move the reader, but they almost certainly provoke, even enrage the reader at times. It strikes me that either fascination with, or dislike for, the characters functions as a distancing mode. The novel reads like a Brechtian Lehrstück, using defamiliarisation in characterisation to show the pitfalls of human existence. This kind of alienation is echoed in layout and as well as narrative.

 Multiplicity of voices



As stated above, Some Gorgeous Accident consists of multiple, often contradictory, voices and layers which challenge the reader's perception. The narrative voice, for instance, is first introduced on two levels, emphasised by a different typography for each level:

'Whereas,' he [Link] would have started the story's theme, 'whereas I loved this one [Fiddes] like a brother; a younger, sadder, if no more serious brother ...'
they had a great thing going.[14]

Almost immediately the reader starts wondering who actually narrates the story. Moreover, schizophrenia is presented, accentuating a multiplicity of voices:

Someone had written on the wall 'God is dead. Nietzsche.', and a second hand had provided the chestnut reply: 'Nietzsche is dead. God.' Link looked at the scribbles[...] He wasn't satisfied with the 'Nietzsche is dead' bit. He circled round and[...] wrote up: 'God is schizophrenic.'[...]
In his slanting grammar school copperplate script, he wrote down the whole definition. '"Schizophrenia is a mental disease marked by disconnection between thoughts, feelings and actions." There you are, my dear God[...].'[15]

This quotation functions like an instruction, telling the reader not to expect any connection between the presented 'thoughts, feelings and actions', but to regard it as 'some gorgeous accident', a sum of events more or less linked, not necessarily making any sense. This contradicts the scheme of a devilish manipulator who controls the lives of the characters involved. At the same time it liberates Link and/or the narrator from all responsibility for his actions. Again the ambiguity between two concepts creates the tension which carries the story.

10 The passage also introduces a twist on the supernatural level. By stating that 'God is schizophrenic' Link deconstructs the power of God. Unlike Nietzsche the existence of God is not questioned here. It is subverted, making the aim of religion and the faith in destiny redundant. If God is schizophrenic then existence in itself is a mere chain of disconnected events. The sheer hubris with which Link presents his hypothesis is as cunning as only Lucifer can be.
11 The reference to Nietzsche invites the reader to apply his parameters to interpret the text. Link displays all features associated with Dionysus, bestower of ecstasy, God of drama and destruction. Following the Nietzschean concept of 'amor fati', Link seizes and affirms life and by doing so tries to make sense of a senseless existence. This reading also allows Some Gorgeous Accident to be read as a tragedy, which itself contradicts the notion of prose fiction. [16]

If Link is the Devil from the Machine, the reader might wonder whether the hinted at schizophrenia of God reflects on Link himself. It soon becomes evident that Link's interest in schizophrenia is more than mere curiosity; he seems to be suffering from it himself:

Inside Link's head, don't you know, there was another very crafty man, much cleverer than the Link the world met. And the strange thing was that Link never met him either. He was always 'honestly' astonished by his own most outrageous actions. And this inner man did two things. First[...] he took the most brilliant news photographs in the world. But this very talent was connected to the second more sinister activity which developed in middle age: he experimented with other people's hearts and minds and lives[...].[17]


Like James Hogg in his novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Kennaway, too, parallels the supernatural and the psychological. In Hogg's novel the narrative voices are clearly separated, the editor telling one version and the protagonist, Robert Wringhim, the other version of the story. In Some Gorgeous Accident one can never be sure to which personality the narrative voice belongs, because the narrative in itself is questioned: is it the witty, clever Link who plays with other people's lives? Is it the other middle-aged Link? Do the other characters exist or are they just acting in Link's mind? This ambivalence keeps the creative tension alive:

'He awoke in tears
after some bad, some awful and disgusting dreams, dreams centred around a grave[...] under which a body was buried[...]. The body that was already buried was maybe Link's idea of Link. Not maybe. Of course it was. What vanity to suggest for a moment that it was Susan's body; that she or anyone else had body enough, substance enough to invade Link's isolated absorption with Link. And from that cell, that imprisoned oblivion, that mirror land of Link and Link and again Link, from that Linkified Paradise, that hell, which being inescapable he saw then so clearly to be the hell of Link's own doing,[...].'[18]

14 In this sense, I agree with Duncan McAra that Some Gorgeous Accident is Kennaway's 'most interesting work technically'.[19] As I stated before, the reader is faced by a Brechtian defamiliarisation technique, which provokes confrontation and prevents any final interpretation of the text. So far there are three main levels of interpretation: the narrative, the supernatural and the psychological one. They not only reflect the narrated love triangle but also compete with each other.

 Pulling the Strings



'We're puppets,' she [Susan] said. 'We're puppets of that bloody bastard Link.'[20]

Susan Steinberg hits the nail on the head with her angry outburst against Link. However, if he instigated the competition in pursuit of Susan, why is there such a yearning for revenge? His desire for revenge is manifold.[21] He feels betrayed, not by Fiddes' actual affair with Susan, but by him not telling Link about it. As a manipulator, he needs to stay ahead of the game and secrecy on the part of the lovers obstructs Link's ability to act. [22] On the other hand, the need for revenge may stem from Fiddes overstepping Link in favour of Paul Mann, a director and friend of Susan's. It displeases Link's ego immensely to be substituted by someone else:

Fiddes cheated. He had someone else in there. None other than Mandy's and Susie's friend, the documentary film director, Paul Mann.[23] 


The most significant reason for Link's vengeance is his recognition of the truth, anagnorisis, of the fact that Susie truly loves Fiddes. Link who has never experienced this kind of love and feels utterly defeated and humiliated:

Next day,
foolishly, Link followed Susie.
within three minutes, Link knew damned well where she was going and wondered why he couldn't stop himself.[...] but she did not enter by the front door.[...] she first looked over her shoulder, then went through a side door.
[...] After a couple of moment's hesitation, he tried the door. No key was necessary. He arrived in a strange, round, stoney back hall.[...] Of course it led to the surgery.
So, he opened the surgery door.
[...] She was burrowing in the basket from which she had already taken an omelette pan. She never looked round to check if he were Fiddes who had come in.
She said, 'When I want to cook for someone, that must mean I love.' She spoke quietly, but was yet full of life, happy, unafraid.[...]
Even when she looked round, she did not at first see her mistake, and smiled such a bright and loving welcome. Then she said. 'Jimmy,' and smiled again, uneasily. Meaning, 'Don't hurt me, please. Don't do that. Don't knock me now. I am happy with Fiddes. I love him.'
Link unfroze. But still looked squint and dangerous.[24]

Although Link constantly addresses himself as a loser, he certainly is a very bad one. He lost the gamble and his best friend. In order to cope with his pain, Link must inflict pain on others.


Link's chance for revenge on Fiddes, the peripeteia, presents itself in form of the hospital's matron Miss Dewey. She contacts Link for some advice in a legal matter, which involves Fiddes. Link advises her to go and talk to his solicitor:

And now forwarding Link's dirty plot:
But in the Fiddes case, Matron Dewey availed herself of the machinery open to any citizen who wishes to lumber his quack. She provided a solicitor with a sworn affidavit.[25]

In the affidavit she swears to have heard that Dr Fiddes performed an illegal abortion. If proved guilty he could be struck off the list in Britain and lose his reputation. Link is confident that Fiddes will opt for a trial to clear his name, although he is in fact guilty, because he knows his friend's major flaw, his obsession with his reputation, principles and pride. He represents what Glenda Norquay calls the 'paradoxical combination of surface emphasis on appearance and respectability combined with a much darker apprehension of polarities of good and evil.'[26] Fiddes' is so preoccupied with his reputation that he ignores the danger of losing the trial. His misjudgement, hamartia, as well as his assumption that Susie will be loyal and lie for him in court, lead to his inevitable downfall.


As if to prove that the story can be interpreted as a tragedy, 'Part Two' of the novel called 'Put to the Trial', resembles the opening of a play:

tread carefully now. It is essential to walk on tiptoe if we are to feel any of Link's pain.[...]
Treading carefully so, it would be nice to say that Jim Link, the one who'd lived the most, who'd seen it all, came out the best.[...]
[...]But tread carefully,
The Disciplinary Committee met in an unusually dull room,[...]. Nobody saw anything of interest to report about the room except J. Never-die Link.[...]
Tread carefully.[27]

The italic headings could be stage directions or a chorus addressing the audience of the play. Either way it is possible to assume that these instructions belong to the voice of the witty, manipulative Link.[28]


However, Link's implied schizophrenia and his lawyer's statement that

[...] once you start on some bloody vendetta like this, you'll snap. It'll finish you off with you totally drunk and exposing yourself in St Paul's[...].[29]

add more ambivalence to his actions. In the final paragraph the narrative voice suggests both explanations:

Looking around he thought, 'Oh toy people in toy world . . . Then[...] he tried a little philosophy. 'The aim of hate,' he thought ... and then told himself 'No Link, no philosophy now, son. No scene. No cabaret. Just break right out of the circle,[...] The aim of hate is the extinction of the other, but that's ridiculous these days.[...]You can kill a man, Link, sure you can; you can still terminate his life. But you cannot bring it about that he never existed. So, onward, Link, and out. Drop it. To forget is to be sane. The Fiddes existed. Learn to live with that. So you loved the big idiot. Now, don't go back.
[...] but let's leave it here. That's a new chapter. A whole new ball game. Come on, Linky: on.[...] Don't turn round. Don't get drawn back into all that;[...]. To forget is wiser. It is wiser to be sane. So head for the sunset, Link, and vanish in the fog.'[30]

His vanishing in the fog has a supernatural implication, whereas his attempt to stay sane hints at his psychological disposition. Some Gorgeous Accident portraits the powerful plotting of a demonic character. It also narrates the story of a middle-aged man, suffering from schizophrenia and yearning for revenge. He achieves his revenge without joy, since he loses his object of desire at the end. Susan manages to liberate herself and leaves both men behind. She becomes the very symbol of life, providing food and love for others. At the end she is the only one who has transformed: from being a prize to the actual winner of this game.[31]

 James Link - A 'Diabolus ex Machina'?



Fiddes went through to Emergency to join the party there; party arranged, party put up, staged, fixed by some celestial mechanic of more irony than grace. Party later to be described in court by all the characters involved[...].[32]

The previous discussion has shown that James Link may be a diabolus ex machina, a 'celestial mechanic of more irony than grace', creating a sequence of plots which are linked to form a story of revenge and disgrace. Whether he is a devil, or whether he just suffers his own hell in the form of schizophrenia, he is the master who reigns over a host of characters. James Link fulfilled the introductory statement in every instance: 'he welcomed life, seized it by both hands and pulled it in the door,[and] he let destruction in as well.' In this sense he proved to be a Dionysian character, adopting the shape of the ancient Greek God and the devil. He embraces Nietzsche's concept of 'amor fati', though with a difference: he inflicts 'fatus' on others and thus seems to gain supernatural power. He remains highly ambivalent throughout the text, never surrendering to one possible interpretation.

21 Just as James Link acts upon the power to manipulate other people's lives, he also succeeds in evading any attempt by others to control him. On the one hand he is obsessed with control as long as it concerns others, but petrified by the thought of being controlled. This paradox reflects itself manifoldly in Some Gorgeous Accident. The text itself appears to perform shape shifting: is it a film script, a diary, a drama, a novella or a novel? It defies interpretation, that is definition and fixation, by layout, genre and narrative. By creating a hybrid of genres, or what Bob Tait calls 'psychodrama' and, by following Nietzsche's philosophy, Kennaway challenges the reader's perception and confronts him or her with the fact that there is no one truth and therefore all interpretation is subjective and, hence, unreliable.[33]

Despite the modes of distortion Some Gorgeous Accident displays a highly structured composition. The content of this novel is a love triangle. The levels on which plausible interpretations operate are also triangular: supernatural, psychological and narrative. This, again, reflects what Bob Tait calls

'[The] three Kennaways: the public actor, poised, revelatory to the limits of self-awareness but on guard; and the private tortuously introspective man locked in a struggle with a monstrous 'baby'. 'Baby' was Kennaway's word for the artist within[...].'[34]

Like the multiplication of Link's mirror image, symbolising his schizophrenic state of mind, the triangular pattern seems to keep reappearing in manifold reflections. This is a phenomenon of Kennaway's work which is 'almost too artful, the art clearly discerned.'[35]

23 James Link might not be as bold as James Bridie's Mr Bolfry, nor does he show off his horns, or what is left of them, like Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye, but he certainly reveals qualities comparable to those of Gil-Martin in James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. These stories, to name but a few, display a very Scottish feature, namely the creation of ambivalence between several possible readings by use of the supernatural and, in consequence, providing a reflection on the narrative process. It seems to me that Scottish literature defies the romantic notion of the poet as the bearer of light, enlightening the reader. It emphasises the poet/writer as an ambivalent torchbearer or 'linkboy', who enjoys the power of creation as well as the power of manipulation, showing the reader that you cannot always believe what you see.


[1] Bridie, James. Mr Bolfry. A Play in four Scenes. (London: Constable, 1978), p. 47.

[2] Kennaway, James. Some Gorgeous Accident (Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1981), p. 3.[All following references to Some Gorgeous Accident will be: Kennaway, SGA, p. ].

[3] It is interesting to note that Link has four brothers which would support him being seen as Lucifer, the fallen angel...

[4] Kennaway, SGA, p. 15.

[5]Kennaway, SGA, p. 25.

[6] Kennaway, SGA, p. 151.

[7]Kennaway, SGA, pp. 7-8.

[8] Kennaway, SGA, pp. 3-4.

[9] Kennaway, SGA, p. 9.

[10] Kennaway, SGA, p. 43.

[11] Norquay, Glenda. 'Four Novelists of the 1950s and 1960s'. In: Craig, Cairns, ed. The History of Scottish Literature. Volume 4. Twentieth Century (Aberdeen; Aberdeen University Press, 1987), p. 262.

[12] Kennaway, SGA, p. 89.

[13] McAra, Duncan. 'James Kennaway'. In: London Magazine. Volume 17, Number 8 (February 1978), pp. 37-55 (p. 49).

[14] Kennaway, SGA, p. 3.

[15] Kennaway, SGA, pp. 4-5.

[16] See Figal, Günter. Nietzsche. Eine philosophische Einführung (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999) and Honderich, Ted., ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. (Oxford: Oxford Univerisy Press, 1995), pp. 619-623. Concerning my reading of SGA in terms of a tragedy, I consulted my German copy of Aristoteles' Poetics: Aristoteles. Poetik. (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1982), Chapters 6-22, pp. 19-77.

[17] Kennaway, SGA, p. 26.

[18] Kennaway, SGA, pp. 182-183.

[19] McAra, Duncan. 'James Kennaway'. In: London Magazine. Volume 17, Number 8 (February 1978), pp. 37-55 (p. 49).

[20] Kennaway, SGA, p. 179.

[21] The fact that there is more than one reason for revenge recalls the pattern of Revenge Tragedies, where there usually are several reasons for vengeance. There are further similarities: madness, sensational blood-spilling in court etc.

[22] See Georg Simmel's study of secrets: 'The Secret and the Secret Society'. In: Wolff, Kurt H. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. (New York: The Free Press, 1950), pp. 307-316. Or the German original: 'Das Geheimnis und die geheime Gesellschaft'. In: Simmel, Georg. Soziologie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1992), pp. 383-455.

[23] Kennaway, SGA, p. 94.

[24] Kennaway, SGA, pp. 100-101.

[25] Kennaway, SGA, p. 106.

[26] Norquay, Glenda. 'Four Novelists of the 1950s and 1960s'. In: Craig, Cairns, ed. The History of Scottish Literature. Volume 4. Twentieth Century (Aberdeen; Aberdeen University Press, 1987), p. 262.

[27] Kennaway, SGA, p. 125-126.

[28] This form of dialogue encourages a Bakhtian reading, too. In her discussion of Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend Sue Vice discusses such a dialogue between the narrator and the reader along the lines of Bakhtin's Dialogism. See: Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), pp. 91 and Bakhtin, M. M. 'Discourse in the Novel'. In: Holquist, Michael, ed. The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 259-422.

[29] Kennaway, SGA, p. 108.

[30] Kennaway, SGA, p. 194.

[31] Francis Russell Hart comments that 'the woman as a myth-maker[...] becomes an essential motif in Kennaway's novels[...]'. See: Hart, Francis Russell. The Scottish Novel. From Smollett to Spark (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 287-294 (p. 291).

[32] Kennaway, SGA, p. 54

[33] See: Tait, Bob. 'Scots Apart. The Novels of James Kennaway and Gordon Williams'. In: Cencrastus 5 (Summer 1981), pp. 20-22.

[34] Tait, Bob. 'Scots Apart. The Novels of James Kennaway and Gordon Williams'. In: Cencrastus 5 (Summer 1981), pp. 20-22 (p. 21). The 'three Kennaways' also represent Freud's classification of superego (the public author), ego (the private man) and id ('baby').

[35] Massie, Allan. 'The Artful Art of James Kennaway'. In: New Edinburgh Review. No. 52 (November 1980), pp. 13-16 (p. 14).

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Karla Benske 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.