It is now. we are informed. thirty years since the celebrated trial which declared D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley 's Lover fit to be read in public. It is one ofthose pivotal occasions which seemed to precipitate the ensuing ‘decade of permissiveness'.
Yet it was in the wake ofthe so-called ‘Summer of Love‘. in November 1967. that a much more closely-fought case of literary obscenity was to come to the courts. The book in question was I lubert Selby Jnr‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn and it was held at the time to be likely to deprave and corrupt any who laid hands on it.
Selby‘s work was withdrawn from publication. It was only after another year. and a concerted appeal led by the playwright John ‘Rumpole' Mortimer QC. that it was allowed back on the shelves.
Even now. Selby‘s vision of doped-up queens and self-destructive prostitutes. repressed homosexuals and violent bruisers makes shocking reading. It may have been made into a film (courtesy of ‘(‘hristiane F‘ director Uli Edel). but it will be a long time yet be fore Last Exit to Brooklyn follows Lat/y ( 'hatterlev onto Radio Four‘s Book at Bedtime.
What Edel has done is to string together a narrative from Selby‘s vignettes of the urban inferno. In doing so. he has given a lighter tint to Selby‘s shades of black. but the results have found favour with the writer.
Now bl). with four novels and a book ofshort stories to his credit. Selby‘s benign frailty is the product ofa life-time‘s dose ofbitter experience. At 15 he left school and his middle class background to find work on Brooklyn‘s infamous waterfront. ()n his first freighter journey. be contracted TB and spent four years in marine hospitals. The solace he found in alchohol and morphine during his convalesence was only the start ofanother long battle. At the 1967 trial he was unable to appear to defend his own book. so debilitating was his addiction.
‘Sure it‘s less relentless than the book.‘ he says of Edel‘s film. laughing. ‘lfit wasn‘t. you couldn‘t look at it for more than five minutes. you‘d be running out ofthe theatre. But I believe what they have done is retain the essence. the very spirit. that dark. gloomy atmosphere. I think they‘ve rendered that very well.‘
Selby is one of the few people capable of learning from his experiences; he now feels distanced from the character who created ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn‘.
‘In retrospect.‘ he says. ‘I think I always had the turmoil of that world within myself. And I was attracted to the kind ofcharacters in the book because they provided a good vehicle for that.‘
The central ambiguity ofSelby‘s novel finds echoes in the quotations from the Old Testament which precede each chapter (one of which also appears at the opening of the film). It is not clear whether the
Banned in Britain in 1967, and eventually published a year later. Hubert Selby Jnr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn is now a film. Don Watson sought the 60 year-old author’s reaction to his screen debut. . .
intention is to use the quotes to condemn the characters or the reverse.
"The book doesn‘t have any answers.‘ he explains. ‘it is in many ways a relentless pursuit ofdarkness. I think of it as depicting the horrors of a loveless world. But those quotes from the Old Testament. prepare the reader for what‘s coming. What it‘s saying is that the problems depicted in the book are the same problems that have plagued man since we crawled out of the first cave.‘
But Selby‘s ambivalence towards religion had dissipated by the time he wrote his last novel ‘Requiem for a Dream‘ with its dedication ‘For Billy who has found . . . faith in a loving God‘.
"The word God is a tough one.‘ he says now. ‘I define God as being that power of infinite and unconditional love that created and maintains the
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universe and exists in its totality in all of us. But people exclude it from their lives as a matter ofcourse.‘
Yet Selby in his books has concentrated on situations of precisely this loveless condition.
‘I didn‘t sit down with the intention ofacting like a microscope and looking at the bacteria that is destroying us. but I think that‘s what I did. From my earliest memory. I was fascinated by how people could hurt each other. l‘\ e hurt a lot of people myself. but that has bewildered me as much as anything else.‘
After ‘Last Exit’. Selby‘s next novel. The Room. was completed in just six months. spans 24 hours. and takes place entirely within the mind ofa prisoner awaiting trial. As a pimple slowly and painfully grows on his face. he retreats from the sensory deprivation ofhis surroundings. first
into memory. then into increasingly violent. sado-masochistic revenge fantasies.
The Room is. ofcourse. as much a metaphorical as a literal prison. The character. a kind of Everyman. rails at us with detail of his wrongful arrest. protesting at the blows that ‘Fate‘ has struck him. As with all Selby‘s writing. the discomfort is palpable; his ability to recreate the ways in which we buoy up our own uncertainties and convince ourselves ofour infallibility has us squirming on a hook he doesn‘t hesitate to twist.
‘After all.‘ he says candidly. ‘we have to lie to ourselves before we can lie to anyone else. I want to put the reader through an emotional experience. and in order to do that. you have to write from the inside out. I have to be within the head of the people I‘m writing about. otherwise you’re not going to experience it.‘
By the time he had finished The Room. Selby says. he had come to the conclusion that ‘there are no victims in the world‘.
This runs counter to the dominant interpretation of‘Last Exit‘ — that its characters are victims of a particularly brutal society. Take Harry. the strike leader in the book. a gay man trapped in a heavily macho culture. Where is his escape?
‘Harry is what I consider to be a pervert.‘ says Selby firmly. ‘A pervert in the sense ofnot being true to one‘s nature. If Harry could have accepted what he was in the world. and not tried to live a lie. he would have a chance. but he didn‘t. he tried to keep up an image. and image does anyone in sooner or later.
‘Evcrything that happens does so as a result of a decision we‘ve made.‘
A clue to Selby‘s embracing of this doctrine of self-responsibility comes in the dedication of his third novel. The Demon: ‘For Bill. who has helped me to learn that I must surrender to win‘. The sentiment is drawn from one of the steps towards enlightenment enumerated by Alcoholics Anonymous. whose philosophy holds that addiction springs from a lack ofspirituality.
The protagonist. is less a conventionally ‘rounded‘ character than an embodiment ofaddictions. A highly successful corporate man. a Yuppie before the term was invented. he graduates from destructive lust to theft and murder. Despite the appearance ofsuccess. his life is spiritually empty.
‘We have built up a beliefsystem of lies.’ Selby contends. ‘which prevents us from knowing that we already have the answer to everything within us. Pragmatically. you could say it is a vacuum. But of course nature will not accept a vacuum. something has to fill that hole. and ifyou don‘t allow Spirit to fill it. then all manner ofgarbage is going to ﬂood in.‘
Last Exit to Brooklyn will be shown from 191a): at ()(leons Glasgow. Edinburgh, Hamilton, Ayr; Cannon Parkhead.‘ Salon Hillhead; U Cl Clydebank; U('l East Kilbride. Cannon Falkirk; ( 'annon Kilmarnock.
The List 12— 25 January 199015