nthposition online magazine

Tom Harris

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

Successful novelists are impresarios. I choose the word "impresario" deliberately, rather than "theatre director", for instance, because of its connotations of old-school music hall theatre and indeed rather hard-headed commercialism (oh, and by "successful", I mean of course successful in achieving the objective of the writing, even if that objective be abstract or unknown to the author, rather than any commercial consideration). Reading Evelyn Waugh’s rationale for killing off Sibthorp, the thunder-box owning novelist-as-impresario may seem an unusual, even irrelevant comparison for an avant-garde or experimental or modernist writer. Yet the successful writer of experimental fiction will have more in common with the old-fashioned creator of "well-made" novels than one might think.

Tom Harris has the form of a detective story, one that consistently throws the reader off kilter, does not allow complacency or certainty, yet a detective story nevertheless. A detective thriller, even. A detective story that suddenly breaks down, for this is a book of two halves, the second very different from the first. Some questions are answered but most aren’t. This is no classic whodunnit, partly because we don’t quite know whatwozit in the first place. The

We begin with an unnamed, unknown narrator, recounting the time in 1938 he waited outside Paddington Station where the eponymous Harris was being interrogated. Why? And why do his interrogators let him go, to take the train to a small village where Harris has a mysterious encounter with a woman and her lover - followed by the narrator and two detectives? We don’t find out, at least not at this early stage. On his return to London, Harris manages to purchase a monkey and to break the invisible barrier between himself, the men trailing him, and our narrator.

Next we are in Milan, Spring 1963, and our narrator is on a train. Opposite an older man and a younger woman canoodled - "to me, they looked refreshing. Especially as just the day before, a young Italian poet, whose father owned a cinema and whose sister was a teacher, had sighed and said his grandfather was the happiest of us all: a peasant in Calabria. This remark whetted my appetite for any human being that looked happy; all in vain … til I saw them." We soon discover this happiness is illusory too. This is one of the recurrent themes of the book - the disparity between appearance and reality, in the most everyday way. Why do we see some faces as "noble", "honest", "kind" etc. and others as their opposites? Mirrors, appearances, beauty, truth, goodness - all are in the mix. Harris himself is a detective, a self-appointed one whose mission is to discover the truth behind appearances. Or is it?

This is to jump ahead, to mix the detective story style plot with the later metaphysical speculations of Tom Harris. Perhaps this jumping ahead is appropriate. The rest of part one is an enjoyable read, an immersion into a world of passion and intrigue, set in Northern Italy around the time of the death of Pope John XXIII. Part two consists of attempted reconstructions by the narrator of Tom Harris’ notebooks. The stream-of-consciousness of Harris’ notebooks (or rather, our narrator's reconstruction of those, we think) would not be nearly as effective without the intrigue of the first section. As it is, Tom Harris’ thoughts are fascinating, irritating, sometimes a little boring, answering some of the questions posed by the first half of the book but by no means all or many.

Tom Harris, we learn eventually, was a working class boy, "a dull boy", who had exactly the kind of face people expect to be coarse and stupid, who rather liked being thought dull because people tended to leave one alone and therefore drifted out of school into hairdressing. He stole an encyclopaedia once which becomes the foundation for his transformation into an autodidact. His thought processes, as represented in the reconstruction, have the fascinating, tangential, somewhat obsessional quality that the self-educated often have. There is also a consciousness of the class system which is testament to Stefan Themerson’s observation.

A few words on the author, one who is largely unknown but has his knot of devoted devotees. Themerson was Polish, who during the First World War lived in Russia with his parents before returning to Poland after the Revolution. He began and then abandoned studies in physics and architecture, but left both to devote himself to avant garde film making. In 1938 he moved to Paris and thence to London. He successively wrote in Polish, French and English. Like his compatriot Conrad, his achievement in not merely mastering but excelling in a foreign tongue is humbling. And in some respects, while Conrad’s English always bore a somewhat French, abstracted stamp, Themerson has the demotic quality of Harris’ inner monologue and of English discourse down perfectly. You can believe that the younger Harris is a man of the Thirties, while the narrator is one of the early Sixties. Themerson and his wife founded and ran Gaberbocchus Press, whose mission was to produced "best-lookers rather than best-sellers" and published Jarry and Queneau in translation. Gaberbocchus became a sort of collective at which artists, scientists, philosophers and others could meet and discuss common ground. Tom Harris and the unnamed narrator, as well as other characters, reflect these preoccupations, and there is an eerily predictive quality to some of the discussion of neural nets and what sounds like chaos theory.

From a literary point of view, the experimental features seem necessary and organic to the story. There is experimentation, there are games played with narration, with characters overlapping - but none seems like a literary game. The detective thriller touches suit the theme, just as the stream of consciousness does. Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the novelist-as-impresario is that you cannot see the joins, that the work seems as logical and necessary as a theorem. Tom Harris amply succeeds on those terms. Even if, reading purely hedonistically, the latter stages in which we enter Harris’ febrile, disjointed, creative and rather sad thought-world are harder work than the elegant, William Gerhardiesque world of absurdity and chaos of the first part, it is worth persisting with. Part of me wonders if the whole was written in the style of the first half, would it have been overall more successful as a novel - but perhaps then Harris’ mind would never have been unveiled for the reader. Bertrand Russell - who struck up an epistolary friendship with Themerson in the last years of his life - described another novel of Themerson’s as "nearly as mad as the world." Tom Harris - the novel - is nearly as chaotic and exciting and sad and lonely as life.