Author: John Royson
Mechanic: Ken Clay
Another Country is another extraordinary facet of an extraordinary range. For the first page or two I thought Penthouse but later on I thought no, the Lancet. This strange switch of narrative posture, the first person is initially a bored rep, then his prick, then an ovum in, presumably, a Spanish woman’s reproductive organs, then a slightly less bored rep. This peculiar vehicle is an excuse for some almost Elizabethan prose on your favourite topic (and why not?). It could almost be Spenser on a bad day. Is there a faint odour of the Thesaurus intermingled with the musk? As the world’s authority on your prose (who needs computers?) I’ve underlined in red the odd word which I think may have been mechanically dug out of these literary warehouses. It is in fact a prose poem John, but why the preamble?
The weather report seems distinctly irrelevant and the observations on the boredom of hotel life relatively low key and peripheral. There’s either an action-packed, suspenseful, knicker-clawing, underpant-wrenching tale of transcontinental lust in luxurious surroundings (in which case get rid of the wop OAP and substitute some Norwegian blonde siren with legs eight feet long, tits like coconuts and an organ which can play the flute who bangs like a shithouse door in a gale – as they say in the classics). Or there’s a limpid, poetic evocation of these sub-dermal channels and fluids, in which case it wouldn’t matter if they were rutting gorillas. Send the first to Men Only and the second to the Guardian.
This would appear to be your strongest genre – the multi-adjectival prose poem, and it’s a bit sneaky to include such a production into a series of essays into different territories designed to strengthen your weak points – this was the original intention wasn’t it? However the problems associated with this kind of thing are obvious – no narrative drive, no human interest, no possibility of identification, sympathy, empathy, reaction. Is there any reason why other than decadent nutters like myself should spend time on it at all? Well there are plenty of precedents – Ulysses is really a pretty wasted, ravaged, skeletal piece of work scoring very low in all those categories, and even the amazing 100 Years of Solitude, not to mention Finnegans Wake is, from one point of view (the traditional one) a gross deformity. So I’d say persevere enthusiastically. I’d like to see a couple of hundred pages of this kind of thing – and just one warning – don’t be dispirited if it takes twenty years to get it published – nothing could be more against the grain. There must be some virtue in that, perhaps even greatness!
From John Royson
You're quite right about my propensity for rooting round in the old Thesaurus - but why not. Nabokov gets away with it, doesn't he. But maybe it's a question of tone, maybe these remote and obscure words are obtrusive because they are 'set' in a prose style which, is otherwise plain. If that's the case then I think there's a case to be made for their excision on the grounds of heterogeneity. But in fact 'antre' comes from two respectable sources — Shakespeare (where it only occurs once) and Keats (Sonnet on "The Sea"). But I have a more serious objection to lodge. Your belittling marginalia are a good laugh, they puncture some of my wilder excesses, and I accept your technological hegemony - but since the negative aspects have come to receive more emphasis I'm left without the sort of critical response which tells me which aspects are worth preserving. I'm not getting value for money! I'm not being fairly dealt with your honour! Not that I want some spuriously 'balanced’ comments, but some of your earlier returns did include notations of mild approval, passages which had been 'successful', and felicitous expressions, etc.
Another Country Revisited
The reverse creation! Yes! There is a story in that but I think the confusion and the faults which disturb even sophisticated readers are due to switching viewpoint. We do seem to fluctuate from prick to cunt – from the sperm to the egg, and even, at one weird point into a fantasy unknown to human biology – a cell the size of a plant spore. There is more drama and action than I gave credit for in my initial critique – the finest page remains 3 beginning: First since there was plenty of time I wished to survey the terrain… but from then on what we guess is a microscopically detailed account of what’s going on here and now inside the principal actors is later explicitly stated to be a journey into the past. There is no explanatory transition – confusing!
From John Royson
Really Ken, I'm worried that you might have been irreparably damaged reading that VOICES, even writing for the fucking thing. Don't you recognise good healthy IMAGINATION when you see it? Have you ingested so much of this socialist realism drivel that you now imagine all literary artefacts are to be measured against the yardstick of verisimilitude!? I thought the 'story’ would be quite easily comprehensible - though I did indulge in a few abstractions and sleights of hand so that The Reader would be left with a little work to do. Here it is stage by stage then, a) he presents himself at the orifice and 'enters' b) he crawls in and becomes smaller as he advances c) smaller equals younger: he becomes a child d) he is 'born’ in reverse - that is, he becomes an embryo e) he shrinks back to being an egg f) before the egg goes all the way back into the fallopian tube it is fertilised - perhaps by his own semen. Of course it's weird and philosophically 'illogical' (how can a sperm talk) but in fact you'll notice that he is dosing off on the bed when the cleaner comes in: it could be a dream. But wouldn't it be an interesting dream anyway!?? I shall perhaps reinforce this aspect by adding in the final paragraph that he was unable to locate the lady again. And maybe I'll go over those transitions to clear up any of the more obstructive ambiguities. Anyway, the comments were USEFUL.
A Reply to the above
Yes John! I see now – after your somewhat hysterical self-justificatory note – but really if one has to append these explanatory leaflets, even for the literate, not to say erudite, autodidacts like your correspondent one wonders if it is really worthwhile. I suspect that the bewilderment is intensified to a certain extent by the plethora of rhetorical questions studding the text after page 3. I had intended praising your rich inventiveness and do agree with you, up to a point, that this is a welcome diversion from unrelieved naturalism. However I remain an unrepentant realist believing, with Tom Wolfe, that this is the biggest, strongest and most enduring hook that one can insert in the reader. I opine that a dissatisfaction with this technique is largely confined to jaded academics. As for the alternatives I suggest there are two types – the sci-fi nutty notion stereotype pioneered by Jules Verne, HG Wells and Borges in which the strangeness is essentially a product of a single idea – and the inherently peculiar which escapes categories of realism by a consistently unusual vision – viz Kafka and Marquez. The second is infinitely superior in my view, and I have to put your piece in the first group.
I also remain puzzled by your ranting against real biographical incident. It seems to me that we are both uniquely situated to sniff out just this component in each other’s work – and that there is a much greater degree in the masterpieces of the past than we generally suspect. personally I see no virtue in creation ex nihilo (or as near to nihilo as one can get) and just can’t comprehend the kind of idiotic statement made in a review of Waugh’s letters in one of the Sundays that for the reviewer A Handful of Dust had become irreparably damaged by the knowledge that a great deal of it was real. I wonder if Proust feared this reaction when he recommended the artist’s private life remain private?
One further explanatory aside in your letter illuminates another possible construction. You say the hero is on the bed “dosing off” when the woman comes in. I hadn’t come across this particular slang term before guess it’s some kind of back derivation from “to catch a dose” and therefore indicates he’s bashing his beef bugle. So – the whole thing might be a masturbatory fantasy like Querelle of Brest etc. Extraordinary what? Les plaisirs du texte! What a veritable combine harvester of critical apparatus one can summon to mow even the scraggiest grass verge. And “dose” of course can, with the slightest lexicographical manipulation, become “e sod” suggesting that the unnatural practices of Mediterranean climes may not be foreign to our perverted protagonist.
Deletions are in blue, additions in red, comments in green inside  brackets
[2001 – An Inner Space Oddity]
Europe at that time was
covered by a trough of low pressure which had drifted across the Atlantic and
settled to produce the coldest May on record since the war. Certainly London was
bleak, with gusts of miserably chill rain buffeting the journey [strange
object for this transitive verb] each morning from Russell Square to the
Barbican. I was staying in one of those new international hotels which seem to
pride themselves on impersonality - raw concrete interior wall's, poison green
carpeting, and breakfast entirely wrapped in cellophane. It was a week of
continuous ineventuality, and the atmospheric depression intensified a sense of
boredom which had come to hang like a leaden cloud over my existence in general.
I am at that age when there are few pleasures left, and my life is tediously
conventional - reasonable salary, job satisfaction nil, loveless marriage, and
nothing more than retirement and the humiliating diseases of old age to look
forward to. Not that any of this is apparent: I take care to present a lamina of
good cheer to the world. After all, my job depends upon it: new orders are not
won with frankness and philosophic good faith. In this condition I find that
alcohol is an excellent tonic. It helps induce, very palatably indeed thank you,
that pleasant state of numbness which assists transition from one day to the
next - though on this particular occasion I had been caught in one of those mid
afternoon lulls which are such an annoying feature of British social custom.
[A good evocation of jaded cynicism]
Business was concluded for the day, - I felt tired after a heavy lunch, and had nothing in particular to do. My taxi ground through spasmodic drizzle and innumerable hold-ups. Back at the hotel I mooched listlessly into the television room but was repelled by the atmosphere of an airport departure lounge. Instead of taking the lift I wandered through a maze of identical corridors just to kill time. Polished aluminium door handles; giant rubber key fobs.;[it’s difficult piling significant or even illuminating detail in these cases but would giant key fobs be evident? Wouldn’t they all be in reception?] room seven-four-nine, seven-five-one; my shoes hissing over the nylon fibre carpet; no-one about: it was the dead hour. In my room I poured a measure from portable reserves and lay out on a chocolate coloured bedspread which matched the rest of the fabrics in the room as if they had been squeezed, from the same tube. I turned on hotel muzak and switched myself off until dinner.
At least the bed was
soft, the music soporific. I felt weighted by a sensuous torpor and drifted off
into that state of mindless black rest during which we practice being dead. Then
a gentle knock and the well oiled 'clop’ of the door latch announced the rear
view of a chambermaid dragging in her commercial vacuum cleaner – though 'maid'
is hardly the appropriate expression: she was one of those women of
indeterminate middle age and shape who circulate unseen like white corpuscles in
the life blood of hotels. Wrinkled stockings broad hipped, and wiry black hair,
[yes – they’re all like that – malheureusement]
gasping "O perdone Senor!" when she turned round. "It's all right" I said: "do
you want to clean the room?" I waved her in and picked my shoes off the floor.
She hesitated, cowering. "No hablo ingles Senor". Half frightened, half
embarrassed, she looked at me sceptically but when I motioned again insistently
she ventured in with the plug.
[There’s a strange vacant smoothness about the prose on this page – even the hero’s thoughts echo it. One can almost hear the drone of the air-conditioning unit in the background]
The poor woman: uncertain and nervous, she kept casting glances back at me as she hoovered round the room. I sat up in the oatmeal coloured half light listening to the whirr of the machine and its interference crackle on the radio. Her eyes flickered in the dressing table mirror like the cautious (wary?) peasant in a war film. Or maybe she was the hostile partisan? I lay back and was just beginning to drowse again when - bang! - the vacuum cleaner broke down explosively under the bed.
"Aggnhii!" the woman screamed - or whatever its equivalent in Spanish. She rattled the suction nozzle as if choking a snake. "Shall I have a. look?" I suggested, and got down to inspect the damage, I lifted a cover off the big dustbin-shaped cylinder and peered inside. The woman made encouraging noises and twirled her fingers round in lieu of technical description. A drive belt had slipped its pulley, that was all. I tried lifting it back on but the tension was too tight. "Si! Si!" the woman said, indicating by a scooping gesture that it must be tackled from underneath. [the senora Brunel of the Basque region it seems] I tried below, but it was still a two-handed job. Finally with a co-operative struggle and some international sign language we managed to get it on together.
So there I was on a wet Thursday afternoon sprawled across the floor in my best working suit fixing drive belts on a damned vacuum cleaner! I looked across the machine almost as if in disbelief at myself: what I saw returned however was a look which combined the timid scepticism of her entry into the room with a heartbreaking expression of admiration and gratitude. She was actually touched by such a simple act of assistance. I made a reassuring gesture, and from the change this wrought realised that in fact there was something-even more specific than gratitude flooding those doe-brown Mediterranean eyes. This was my second surprise - to think of being at my age the object of anyone's affective interest. How soul-hungry this woman must feel to resort so desperately - though perhaps my interpretation was ill-founded? But no; on making a delicate, tentative check my overture was taken up voraciously and reverberated fourfold. Motivated partly by magnanimous pity but more largely a bored interest in filling-the empty hours which hung so oppressively over the afternoon. I initiated the traditional manoeuvres.
In this realm of social activity I have been out of practice for many years now and found it difficult effecting those transitions between the upright and horizontal, between covered and released without at moments feeling an embarrassed sense of the ridiculous. It also occurred to me that the spectacle of two middle-aged persons in flagrante might not be an exactly pretty sight. But gradually as I began to master the task in hand the warm speechless creature with whom I shared this event was positively enthusiastic in her co-operation. The first result of lifting off our civilized restraint, [does this mean “taking her clothes off”? I wonder if this kind of inflation is worth while. Don’t you lose more than you gain?] was that the frowzy immigrant worker disappeared: she dissolved into simply a representative female - woman hypostatised, if that doesn't sound insulting - and I too began to feel that rising urgency, that sappy mixture of excitement and apprehension which one experiences on discovering a new world.
First, since there was
plenty of time, I wished to survey the terrain: so delicately I began to explore
the sallow-skinned contours of this new found land. And what surprises there
were! What protrusions! What variations of tone and texture! I navigated the
cushioned and padded relief from socket to knuckle, from dimpled tissue-fold to
broad acres of spongy flesh covered with fine down like some silken nap.
Encouraged by these discoveries, I extended my inquiry to establish contact with
the principal region of interest. Her thighs were like hills shrouded in a dense
protective cloud layer through which I descended to encounter the dark zone of
bifurcation. Here was a fibrilous gorse covering the slopes of the mons: here
the musky odour and salty fluids which promote mythologies of woman and the sea;
here the labial portals to that fundamental antre rising, pulsing like a roseate
cleft in the soft shoreline of this terra incognita. I stop and genuflect,
kissing the ground in honour and humility like the Pope visiting some foreign
dominion. The land is hot, tropical, fertile, it invites further exploration and
facilitates entry with a lubricious welcome. But at this I hesitate: to go
further places my own being at risk. What lies inside, beyond the steamy vapours
of this sarcoline foyer? My curiosity is stronger than my caution however, so I
press on and, taking deep breaths like some pearl diver about to-submerge, I
nose forward into the salmon toned combe.
[I like this in spite of my earlier sarcasms]
Yes, I'm apprehensive, yet at the same time engulfed by a pleasant awe. The glistening pink walls of the vestibule fold around me and some uncomfortable layers of my own being start slipping away to expedite movement. Deeper inside, the passage narrows: I'm forced to stoop, but still the topography exerts a sort of peristaltic influence to draw me on. All around is an amazing universe of elastic, pneumatic softness, an atmosphere humid to the point of saturation, dim red light, and textures like the inside of a cheek. Soon the viscous secretions of the fleshy tunnel are lubricating my body and I come into more and more intimate contact with the surrounding physiology, my shoulders and hips brushing the macerated walls of this luscious grotto. There are swishing, rushing, pumping sounds such as I imagine a doctor might hear through his stethoscope when ausculating the flow of blood through an active heart; and like a heart the interior is pulsating, throbbing under some impulse which forces me to regulate my own movement and breathing sympathetically.
Gradually the headroom
is so low that I'm forced to crawl, slopping through milky fluids which run out
of fissures in the walls, but still pressing on into a vague rust-coloured
darkness. Affected by this new organic world, I feel myself shrinking like Alice
after she had obeyed the bottle's imperative label. The physical conditions are
not unlike those which must be experienced by a pot-holer except that I am
enveloped, as I wriggle forward, by a warm and protective envelope of flesh.
Gradually I feel that this exploration is becoming a journey of some special
significance and I press on, deeper and deeper, unconcerned that the cost of
doing so is a loss of stature. For my limbs grow shorter, rounder, and the
lineaments of age disappear as my skin becomes as glabrous and tender as that
surrounding me. Then gradually, as the funnel narrows even further, I feel my
strength waning: I'm suddenly tired, unable to press further: I have no force,
am utterly enfeebled, and can do no more than writhe helplessly as the elastic
tube begins to close around me. Yet frightening though this entrapment was, none
of it prepared me for the trauma which was to follow.
[Excellent! Even better when read fast and without doubts about its physiological accuracy. There’s a fluid rhythm to it, enlivened by a variety of surface. Maybe Thesauruses do work!]
For suddenly the whole
passage contracts to grip me in a convulsive spasm which has me crying out in a
mewl of pain and fear.[Really! Such vaginal muscle
tone in one who’s had sixteen kids. Where was this hotel?] I'm trapped by
a sort of internal sphincter. All light goes out as if my eyes have been sealed
over. I'm plunged into a state of frightening darkness and ignorance. I struggle
to get back again, but can't. This is terrible. I'm trapped; I can't breathe'!
And still the tube contracts more fiercely, suddenly transformed into an
immensely powerful muscle squeezing life out of me. Oh my God! What a horrible
sensation. It's like some terrifying nightmare combined with an awful physical
torture. My panic is so intense that I manage to wriggle forward. Am I? Yes,
I've been sucked into a space beyond the constriction. But then one terror is
succeeded-by another. My gasp of relief is swamped by an on-rush of fluid -
water pouring in from all sides, flooding the plenum into which I've been drawn.
Swallowed by blackness, disoriented - and now I'm drowning! A saline solution
engulfs me within seconds. I choke. I gasp. My breath gives out, and then slowly
my struggling dies away. My limbs go limp, and I submit to this suffocation, my
body contracting into a defensive posture under the primal impulse to protect
myself against further attacks.
[A dramatic note in this lyrical idyll – but can it deliver?]
I am locked into total
darkness. The pulsing swish of fluids being pumped through tubes is still
audible, and I am otherwise sensate even though suddenly upside down. [What
the fuck!? Transition from prick to sperm? Confusion! What’s going on?]
In fact the fluid eventually soothes me. This warm aquatic world holds my
little body almost tenderly and although movement is limited I can oscillate
gently like an astronaut enjoying his condition of weightlessness inside the
capsule. It seems I've been suspended in a fluent medium which far from
attacking is supporting, nurturing me. The need to struggle disappears: I'm
happy to draw sustenance from this lymph-like universe. Yet curiously enough the
more I absorb life by some involuntary form of osmosis, so I feel myself further
reduced and rapidly losing strength. Even my body is affected: the limbs are
contracting, losing their outline. My arms shrink to become like tiny flippers
on the side of a fish and my legs shrivel until they're like button mushrooms or
buds hardly protruding at all from the atrophied form of a body which is now no
larger than a finger tip. Curling tighter under the inexorable forces of this
experience, my head nods forward to tuck itself under the remains of my trunk.
Now my identity is lost forever: all features have disappeared, my gender has
shrunk away, and I am no more than a fleshy bud, a piece of animal tissue.
[This is a crucial para from a comprehension point of view. One can make assumptions of course but the metaphors and symbols suggest some weighty significance – can this be sustained and reinforced?]
Yet if the essence of life is movement of some kind, then even at this stage of extreme diminution I still felt the inclination to shift my position when gradually the waters seemed to evaporate and I found myself abandoned, clinging minutely to the side of a fleshy pocket. My direction was uncertain, my reasons must have been instinctive or deeply subconscious, but slowly I began to ease a way amongst the folds of this organic chasm as a limpet might adhesively traverse the walls of a sea cave. [It’s an embryo all right but it’s going the wrong way!] Some sort of urge was there, sending me on even though my physical reduction continued. First my rudimentary form shrivelled almost to nothing. I became more or less an elementary life form - a cell no more than the size of a plant spore [what the f..!!] or botanic seed. Yet even then I felt that this Odyssey had not yet reached its natural end. Faint vibrations of genetic programming indicated that there was a goal yet more remote. [No! It’s something else!]
My next shock however, which, confirmed that my existence was rapidly drawing to its close, was a sudden feeling of what I can only call being reduced through simplification in the way that an infinite number of soap bubbles gradually coalesce, popping at random to form simpler and simpler units, or a complex fraction might by stages of arithmetic consumption be brought back towards the figure One. The sensation produced a mental anguish quite at odds with the physically painless stages of decay, I was seized by panic. This was my actual life disappearing into an empty integer, a vacant nought. A sort of metaphysical vertigo swept over me. I wriggled, slithered, moved in any way possible towards the most remote corner of the sac in which I was trapped: there might be a ledge or narrow duct somewhere. Surely there was some portion of this labyrinthine universe where I could hide from these exhausting and fearsome transmogrifications. Progress was slow: it was all uphill. I rolled stickily round what in proportion to my size must have been the dome of a planetarium. But eventually I sensed what felt like a corner or a bend, and simultaneously the sonic reverberation of a more rapidly returned echo suggested a narrowing of the vault.
At this juncture I paused to rest, and that was my - well, it would be wrong to say 'mistake’, but it was because of this bivouac that I never got any further and was exposed to the cataclysm which followed. There was a sort of subterranean rumbling beneath the floor of the cavity: the rumbling then developed into a heavy banging, and the cavity began to shake. [the female orgasm?] I tried to retreat further, but it was too late. The hammering noise became deafening - as if someone were breaking down the doors of a cathedral - and the entire vault heaved convulsively, It was like an earthquake: the whole world was being shaken. At any moment the walls of the enclosure would rupture and - Yes! Here it is! Suddenly there's a paroxysmal eruption below. A violent explosion. And then again; I'm drowning for a second time, swamped in a gluey fluid alive with stinging, wriggling shocks. It's like being thrown naked into a tank of electric eels. My entire surface area is bombarded with the piranha-like stabs of these creatures, butting their sharp little heads against my skin. Suddenly my simple unity, my elementary identity seems more than precious, but - Agh! - with a deadly vigorous thrust one of these myriad tormentors bursts through my protective layer and actually enters my being! What a horrifying yet seminal experience. It's assault and salvation, rape and euphoria. My unity is shattered and some form of generation is going to take its place. I am being created through violation. Through this savage act of penetration new life is being set in motion. I have travelled back in biological time to witness and take part, in my own conception, and…
Although it always seemed to me that there were further stages back into the physiological production of 'being' which might have been traversed, this was where my journey ended. I spent the remainder of the week in that anonymous hotel reflecting on the experience and concluded that I had been vouchsafed a privilege. But with whom could I share it? Life in the city remained depressingly bleak and I felt isolated amongst more than ten million others. But towards week-end the weather improved: a ridge of high pressure began to move in from the east. Perhaps instead of going home I will treat myself to a couple of days on the coast.