Tom Leonard has spent sixteen years on a book about a little-known 19th century poet. Sue Wilson met him to ﬁnd out why.
‘A shape. containing a biography, written slowly in response to the an of another' is how Glasgow poet Tom Leonard describes Places oft/1e Mind. a sixteen-year. labour-of-love study of 19th century Scots-bom poet James Thomson (1834-82). Born in Port Glasgow to a poor but religious family, Thomson went on to become one of the leading voices in the i‘reethinking secularist movement of his day. Much of his life. however. was a running battle with poverty — the common fate of radicals — and he died a penniless alcoholic. Leonard intended his book partly as a kind of ‘covert anthology — just to let people see this smashing writing, without having to reprint his work completely‘. partly as an artistic and personal exploration of Thomson’s often far-reaching ideas.
Little beyond the details of Thomson‘s life. assiduously culled from diaries and correspondence, is spelled out in the book. Leonard studiously avoids imposing his own analysis. leaving the reader to pick up on the implications or parallels that resonate throughout the structure of the text. .At a basic level.
it's fascinating simply to become immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of the time, particularly since such a monolithic. stereotypical version of the
Victorian period has been promulgated ,
in recent years. Rather as Alasdair Gray. in his faux-l9th-century pastiche Poor Things, subverts the Victorain values he is suposedly espousing, Leonard‘s delineation of the energetic secularist, freethinking. dissenting debates of the time not only paints a very different picture of the era but produces parallels somewhat contrary to those Mrs Thatcher had in mind. ‘You just have to look at the issues
James Thomson c.1881
Thomson was addressing in his essays.‘ Leonard says. ‘Things like the disestablishment of the church. the prudery of English literature. the repeal of the blasphemy laws — it’s very contemporary in a lot of ways. Also, i hadn‘t realised the extent to which there was a network of radical groups in those days which, again, you can compare to the network of organisations. alternative presses and so on that exists today — you can see this extra-parliamentary tradition stretching right back.‘ At the centre of the book, the source of its energy and its themes. is
Thomson‘s magnum opus. the long pessimistic epic ‘The City of Dreadful Night'. it describes a metropolis like a reverse image of the New Jerusalem, shrouded in darkness. whose citizens wander hopelessly in the knowledge that there is no God. no afterlife, where the only certainty is death. Though clearly a product of its time. the poem is startling for the bleak power of its
At a basic level, it’s fascinating simply to become immersed in the intellectual atmosphere of the time, particularly given the monolithic, stereotypical version of the Victorian period which has been promulgated in recent years.
imagery, the vividness with which it preﬁgures 20th century concerns such as urban alienation. existential angst, industrial blight and nihilistic despair.
‘I also see him as connecting backwards with someone like James Hogg, in Confessions Ufa Justified Sinner, and forward with someone like RD. Laing. in that he created this city full of people locked into what you could call repetitive-compulsive behaviour,‘ says Leonard. ‘He‘s asking the same questions — can you deﬁne someone by a behaviour pattern, or does that negate their existence, are you denying their existence by the language you use. And if someone scents locked into a behaviour pattern. at what point do they start denying their own existence, at what point is our consciousness always free, or not — I just see that as so basic. and so political as well: do we all equally exist or not?’ Places of the Mind is published by Jonathan C ape at £25.
_ Come again?
‘Ela has the tightest cunt In the world. Yet, in real life, every blessing Is also a curse.’ I haven’t reproduced the first sentence of Eurudice’s first novel, F/32: The Second Coming, just to get a rise — the book is all about the c-word and the huge taboos surrounding it. ‘My main interest in writing this novel,’ says the author, ‘was to reclaim the word for women. It’s outrageous that what should signify female pleasure, female sexuality, female transcendence, has instead become a curse.’
ller method for achieving this reclamation is quite spectacular. The novel initially depicts Ela, or everywoman, as a schizophrenic being, voyeur and victim of her own lnordinate sexual desire, her dependence and objectification symbolised by her relationship with the serpentine mirror clinging to the walls of her extraordinary ilew York apartment.
Then one fine day, in Central Park, she suffers the most horrific rape and mutilation at the hands of a blind, knife-wielding maniac. As a huge crowd of bystanders gathers, mentally
Ela also stands by, feeling so detached from her insatiable organ that it seems quite appropriate when the detachment becomes literal. In a perverse way, her complicity in this gruesome dismembennent empowers her.
The remainder of the novel consists of a surreal romp through the Big Apple, as Ela sets off in hot pursuit of her cunt which has taken gleefully to freedom. If is to be seen clinging provocativer to the skirts of the Statue of Liberty, posing irrevereme on the bald head of a chat-show host, blowing smoke rings at a literary party and getting its own back on the male population in various unspeakable ways. ultimately Ela and her re-written cunt achieve an apocalyptic reunion, and the mirror of oppression shatters into a thousand pieces.
Regarding the novel as a parable, Eurudice makes no apology for her didactic intentions, nor for her indebtedness to feminist and Lacanian psychoanalytic linguistics. ‘Theory enables you to see what has been happening. Lacan teaches that we can never know reality, only language. But language as it has been created by men has been responsible for so much trauma. My project is to invent a new female means of signification; the challenge for me has been to make my
writing as multiple and pluralistic as possible, to rebel against the single dictatorial male voice, yet to be accessible at the same time.’
F/‘32 has an unconventional mosaic- like structure, but the language itself is down to earth, blunt almost, heightening the startling effect of the subject matter. The novel Is also rooted in American popular culture, Eurudice wanting to hook her readers this way whilst socking them with her political agenda.
Judging by the its critics’ response, it would seem that many Americans managed to overcome problems that
remained with me: squmishness and the difficulty of conceiving of a vagina as an object. Eurudice reports, however, that ‘so many people said that they forgot what it was, this cunt, it just became like a character. but of context it can be anything, which is all part of the demystification and liberation proc.’
Though the novel ends so decisively, Eurudlce acknowledges that the reclamation of language is a very gradual, ongoing process. Both the strengths and limitations of the novel are highlighted by the way that, even whilse congratulating the author on her courage, most reviewers have themselves retreated behind euphemisms. Also, the bookshop readings and TV appearances planned to coincide with the British publication have been mysteriously cancelled. People are literally terrified of the word. ‘its power is just amazing — so much garbage attached to a single slgnifier,’ says Eurudice. ‘I myself would never have used it before I wrote #32, and when i read from the book in public for the first time, i was quaking in my shoes. But now I’d welcome any opportunity to say it - and to reassure the world that I’m not crazy . . .’ (Catherine Fellows) F/32: The Second Coming is published by Virago on 18 Feb at £5.99.
66 The List 12—25 February 1993