Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Horse's Mouth

This from Bar le Roulis, Esquibien. I'm sure you know it. I'm on the last week of my retiree’s full-month holiday and call here occasionally for the wi-fi and to gaze at the sea and the boats.

Some time before I left I found the 1948 Penguin of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (first published 1944). I'd always vaguely intended to read it and recently resolved to soon because I gathered from our informants that it was much prized by Arthur Harvey, the remarkable head of English at Walworth School, 1949-55 (the subject of my research). Two of them independently mentioned Harvey’s frequent quoting of an image from the first paragraph: 'Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop.' (I must admit I don’t quite get it.)

I didn’t expect to be so surprised, impressed and delighted -- I can see why Harvey, with his enthusiasm for ‘vivid’, ‘fresh’ etc language, so rated it. Its language is its most striking feature, issuing from the -- voice? pen? ghostly emanation? -- of the narrator, the elderly eccentric artist Gully Jimson who at the end of the novel is on the point of death. The novel is interlarded with chunks of Blake’s Prophetic Books by which Jimson’s ideolect is heavily influenced while being, often, profane, earthy and working-class. Poetic, extravagant, full of figurative tropes, somewhat surrealist and mad and not always intelligible. I.e. I quite often don’t know what he’s talking about, and that’s not only because the novel contained more words I didn’t know that any I can remember that wasn’t Trainspotting.

Some of these words I imagine are simply dated, referring to things, practices and expressions from the 1930s (the novel ends with the outbreak of war). One of my main impressions, indeed, is of how alien working-class life of the ’30s now seems. Despite the buses and telephones, the world seems more Victorian -- more Henry Mayhew -- than modern, more desperate, raw and primitive. Clothes are never changed (Jimson has ‘my winter drawers’ -- by implication, one pair) and there’s little distinction between under- and outer-wear: the idea is simply layers, that are kept on; baths are never taken; cooking is on smoking coal ranges; people are skint and starve; the workhouse and prison are a constant presence; hospitals are feared as casually killing you once they get hold of you. Existence is unsentimental, ugly and brutal as well as admirable in its gutsiness, repartee and generosity. It's also frequently funny. The women, vastly more oppressed than the men, are formidable, intelligent and winners at repartee, while the typical policeman will slip you a bob if you seem genuinely down on your luck.

The imagination and fertility of the book are huge: no author like him for inventiveness, not at least that I've recently read (Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, perhaps?). And Cary appears to understand art: a lot of Gully’s thoughts are about painting and his response to the world around a painter’s -- how I could render the clouds and the Thames (it’s an archetypal London novel, set somewhere a bit upriver like Hammersmith). These artists’ thought are to me in my ignorance thoroughly convincing.

The plot rambles on but the characters are wonderful, not least the stammering Nosey, the boy with the dripping nose who wants to be an artist and who Jimson unsentimentally tries to drive off. The book’s deliciously iconoclastic and romantic -- true English values against the bureaucrats and upper classes (though millionaires come out well).

It’s long read but I can see myself coming back to it before long.

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