London Triptych, by Jonathan Kemp: a review

 

Jonathan KempJonathan Kemp explores hungers we cannot explain and paints images not only intensely erotic, but tender.  Here, in London Triptych, he shows us the unfolding of three men’s lives, each an unravelling ribbon, fluid, twisting, looking back upon itself. Their stories are confessionals, inviting us to enter the nocturnal, hidden recesses of the psyche. Meanwhile, London’s shadows and secrets echo those within our protagonists, and remind us that we readers, too, have our untold stories.

Each of the tales within the ‘triptych’ takes place, primarily, in London, though separated by five decades. We see the details of the setting change, while the themes remain eternal: our desire for what we cannot articulate; our struggle to express ourselves freely; our eagerness to navigate the ‘geography of possibilities’; our delight in love, glorious, overwhelming and unexpected; and the vulnerability of that state.

1890s rent boy Jack Rose falls into an almost unwilling passion for Oscar Wilde, leading towards a path of disappointment and betrayal.  1950s artist Colin tentatively explores his sexuality, against a backdrop of prudery and prejudice. In the 1990s, David awaits release from prison, telling of the lover who deceived him.

Jonathan Kemp

With each interchanging narrative, we learn more of each protagonist’s history and motivations, and we see the ways in which their stories resemble one other. They do not go in search of love. Rather, it surprises them, catching them off guard. They experience transcendence and then misery: a change in their worldview.

Sex is central to the story, an enduring, irresistible force, with or without love. It is the engine driving each of our narrators to discover a version of the ‘self’ yet out of reach.

Jack Rose tells us: ‘I became a whore in order, not to find myself, but to lose myself in the dense forest of that name.’

However, love is the transformative emotion. Love enervates and destroys, bringing ultimate joy and torture. We are shown its ability to shed light on our restricted, repetitive paths.

Kemp explores what it has meant to be homosexual in a world which views those desires as dangerously inverted, and shows us the tension between pleasure and danger, when there are ‘no laws but those of the body’:

‘When you can be free, free to pursue any desire, acquire any knowledge… it’s the most terrifying place to live. It’s dangerously beautiful…’

Jonathan-KempAs ever, Kemp’s storytelling goes beyond action and consequence, or the clever use of dialogue to reveal character, or the exploration of eternal themes. His talent lies in his use of language, probing words for their secrets, for their ‘blood-beat’, for their ability to reveal ‘meaning held within the contours of the skin’. He returns, again and again, to the inadequacy of language to express the erotic truths of the body, the ‘cannibal, animal hunger’ of desire.

And yet, he, as few authors can, animates the ‘universal language of lust written on the body and spoken by the eyes and fingers’.

He shows us that sex can take us to other destinations within the ‘self’, as if ‘opening doors that lead to other corridors, and other doors’: ‘I am here without knowing how. Suddenly, terrifyingly present. Here, now, lost and hot…

Meanwhile, London itself embodies the elusive, enchanting paradox of existence. It is a place of anonymity, and simultaneous intimacy; London is the unseen, legion-faced (and thus faceless) listener, inviting the narrators to share their secrets. It is a place of judgment (all three stories bring to bear the presence of the law and prospective punishment for homosexual transgression) and of liberation. It is a place of contradictions, just as we are contradictory.

 

Jonathan Kemp 26 Ghosting London TriptychJonathan Kemp teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck College, London.

London Triptych, his first novel, won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize and the Green Carnation Prize.

He is also the author of Ghosting (my review here) and 26, my review here.

Hear directly from Jonathan Kemp, on how the novel came to be, here, in an interview with Polari Magazine.

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 11.20.45

Also, you may like to visit this article, featuring Jonathan Kemp: Men Writing Erotic Fiction

 

 

 

 

A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects: a review

Angels and Insects comprises two novellas: Morpho Eugenia and The Conjugial Angel.

As we know, the Victorian age provides the perfect setting from which to explore themes of freedom and suffocation, as well as moral hypocrisy; it is these which are central to Byatt’s first tale, Morpho Eugenia.

Angels and Insects A S Byatt Victorian fictionShipwrecked naturalist William Adamson is brought under the wing of a wealthy Victorian family and soon falls ‘in lust’ with the enigmatic Eugenia. The sheer beauty and eroticism of Byatt’s prose is magnificent:

‘She sat beside him on the bench, and her presence troubled him. He was inside the atmosphere, or light, or scent she spread, as a boat is inside the drag of a whirlpool, as a bee is caught in the lasso of perfume from the throat of a flower.’

and, later, when they are married:
‘…he felt that their bodies spoke to each other in a kind of fluttering bath of molten gold, a raidiant tent of silky touch and shimmering softness, so that long, tender silences were a natural form of communion during the mundane grey light.’

Just as Adamson has collected specimens of the natural world, Sir Harald Alabaster ensnares him, setting him upon the endless task of classification: an activity requiring meticulous ordering (mirroring the strict order of upper-class Victorian society). This parallel is taken further as we see Adamson studying ant colonies living near the house, each as minutely complex and strictly ordered as the society within the Alabaster home.

Byatt reminds us repeatedly of the contrast between Adamson’s bold past as an explorer of A S Byatt Angels and Insectsthe Amazon, and the suffocating restrictions of polite aristocratic society. However, we come to realise that the family conceals just as many secrets as the darkly exotic jungle. Eugenia, for example, may outwardly (and symbolically) resemble the beautiful butterflies her father enjoys pinning to his boards, but the behaviour we discover of her is closer to the tumbling, devouring, ruthlessness of the insect world.

The pure ‘Alabasters’ are degenerate: stifled, congealing and corrupt, trapped within narrow, inward-looking mindsets. Using more symbolism, Byatt gives us a grotesque description of Harald Alabaster’s hands as ‘ivory-coloured, the skin finely wrinkled everywhere, like the crust on a pool of wax, and under it appreared livid bruises, arthritic nodes, irregular tea-brown stains. The flesh under the horny nails was candlewax-coloured, and bloodless.’

The Conjugial Angel examines the themes of grief and transiency through the Victorian obsession with séances and the next world. Byatt quotes significant portions of Alfred Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which explores mortality, and decay, inspired by Alfred’s love for Arthur Hallum (who died aged 22 and was engaged to Alfred’s sister, Emily). It is Emily who stands as the central figure in the story, as heartbroken in her loss as Alfred in his.

While the physicality of Emily and Alfred’s desire for Arthur is mostly hinted at, their suffering is vividly echoed in that of Mrs. Papagay. Torn by desire for the physical love of her husband, thought lost at sea, she dreams of ‘male arms around her in the scent of marriage-sheets’.

In both stories, there are dark themes at work, of selfishness, betrayal and deceit (of others and the self) but also an element of the fantastical. Byatt draws us into the stifling world of parlours and manners, but leaves doors open to possibilities: of adventure, of love, and of reignition of self-purpose. Both novellas end with protagonists looking to the future with more optimism, with eyes cast up to the stars.

The Victorianesque language is heavy at times, as dense and complex as Byatt’s themes, but there is beauty here, and such insight. Worth persevering for.

byatt authorA S Byatt‘s novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, byatt_childrens_bookStill Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman.

Among her most recent works are The Children’s Book and Ragnarok: The End of the Gods.

Her highly acclaimed collections of short stories include The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Elementals and Little Black Book of Stories.

 

 

 

26, by Jonathan Kemp: a review

Jonathan Kemp‘s 26 is a series of bittersweet vignettes: perfect slices of agony and ecstasy, ‘visions of excess’ burning brightly beyond the civility of language and manners, taking us on a journey of tJonathan Kemp 26 literary eroticaranscendence, of sexual gratification and drug-induced otherness.

Explicit and, often, disturbing, his scenes lead us into dark places in search of meaning, exploring our isolation and our need for connection, our yearning for intense physical experience and our desire for oblivion. Kemp celebrates the raw, terrifying beauty of sexuality, showing its capacity to ‘make and unmake the world’ and to ‘speak a different tongue’.

He explores the hunger we cannot explain and draws with tenderness love unrequited, misplaced, and abandoned: ‘The difference between what we want and what we are able to do emerges with the slow, poisonous crawl of grief.’

He gives us poignant fragments of lost love and intense eroticism, underpinned by the repeated theme of the limits of language to convey human feeling, and the role of the body in remembering its past. It is the pulsing archivist, memories ‘rippling beneath the skin’.

Jonathan Kemp 26‘I wake to find your presence still alighting on my skin, a fragment of your warmth, the weight of you still pressing, and a blurred memory of the dream’s end.’

Kemp shows us physical sensation as another language, our desire to tear open and ‘release something monstrous and wild, from the other side of language’. He voices his longing for ‘a new tongue that licks closer to the contour of bodies’.

Yet, amidst this despair at the inadequacy of language is Kemp’s thread of richly satisfying poetic prose. His images and metaphors blaze.

‘This is for when the blood turns black and burns you from the inside, for when you get the hunger – feel it unravelling within its long, dark spine of want… This is for then, for those crystalline moments when your body molds to your desires, contoured by the red heat of longing…’

Kemp has created a masterpiece, Jonathan Kemp 26 erotic fictionmoving the reader emotionally, intellectually and viscerally, our hearts captured and broken alongside those of his anonymous protagonists.

’26’ is haunting, unsettling and erotically compelling.

Kemp gives us the night folding up like a sheet of paper, sliding itself into memory, ‘to be unfolded and relived, recounted and treasured’. In ’26’, Kemp has created a book of night dreams, vivid imaginings and shadows, half-remembrances and images seared on the skin. These pages close but the emotions he stirs remain close-caught.

‘There are places only the night knows, places only shadows can show us… I walk… looking for something, looking for something, looking for something… Forgive me for not having the words to describe it, this place in which I dwell. I have tried, I have tried. I have drenched myself in words and sensations, seeking a way to make them speak to one another. This is all I have to offer.’

How do you describe a book which has such power to manipulate the reader, to draw so deep from the well that you discover yourself anew?

Jonathan Kemp 26 Ghosting London TriptychJonathan Kemp teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck College, London.

His first novel, London Triptych won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize and the Green Carnation Prize (my review here).

He is also the author of Ghosting (my review here).

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 11.20.45“There is a deceptively relaxed quality to Kemp’s writing that is disarming, bewitching and, to be honest, more than a little sexy… As a writer, Jonathan is somewhat akin to the Pied Piper if only because there is something magical you cannot help but follow.”
– Christopher Bryant, Polari Magazine.

You may like to visit this article, featuring Jonathan Kemp: Men Writing Erotic Fiction

The Lure of the Forbidden

‘I am a forest, and a night of dark trees.’

― Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 

I am a different person by night.

I breathe more deeply.

What I thirst for is not the reflection in the mirror but something beyond and behind, only visible when there is no light: a realisation of my shadow side.

Thoughts of revenge, debasement, danger, fear, pain and violence, is this my ‘real’ self?

It is, although other selves exist too. They have the daylight.

All are mine: dark and light.

As Jung said: ‘How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole.’

My self beyond the mirror desires what cannot be spoken, and what cannot be attained. This ache may be soothed but it cannot be satisfied. Whatever I imagine, it will never be enough, for my desire is always to want more: to grasp at what is out of reach.

I walk a balancing act between light and shade, between my ‘civilised’ self and that which flickers and dissolves at the edges.

‘I am terrified by this dark thing

That sleeps in me;

All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.’

― Sylvia Plath (Ariel)

In Joseph Kessel’s Belle de Jour (1928), Séverine knows well that her indulgence of her ‘dark’ self – which wishes to lose its conventional, public identity and surrender only to desire and sensation, without thought of consequences – endangers her ‘social’ self.

Belle de Jour film poster

The story is best known through Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal of the icily beautiful housewife, in Luis Bunuel’s film (1967). Compelled by desires she cannot articulate, let alone share with her husband, Pierre, she is drawn into an alternate sexual world, choosing to spend each afternoon working at a brothel.

The greater her revulsion with her clients, the greater her satisfaction, yet she seeks continually, without finding true fulfillment. She experiences little ‘conscious’ choice, driven almost mad by her need to act out fantasies of masochism and debasement: to be forcefully subdued, to ‘lose’ her usual sense of self.

Her desires make no sense to her; she only knows that she must serve them.

The story’s tension lies not in her compulsions but in her knowledge that they are incompatible with her ‘other life’ and her love for Pierre. For him to discover the truth is inconceivable. She sends one of her lovers, Marcel, to murder the man she thinks will betray her and it is upon this moment that Fate twists the course of the story, turning the blade towards Pierre.belle de jour

The shock of almost losing him drives Séverine to renounce her sexual yearnings and devote herself to the long-term care of her terribly injured husband.

The final tragedy is that her desire, and her shame, live on sufficiently to drive her to confess all and, in so doing, bring to pass the very reaction she most feared: Pierre’s revulsion and his repudiation of her. In the closing lines of the story, we are told that he refuses ever after to speak to her.

Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut, based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, also examines ‘unbridled’ desires, including concealment of the truth and feelings of guilt. A woman tormented by relentless dark fantasies involving a man she encounters briefly, reveals the details to her husband: a scene intimately constructed in the film, whereby Nicole Kidman whispers her confession of her ‘raw self’ to Tom Cruise.

Eyes Wide Shut - promotional film posterAroused and resentful, he allows himself his own act of transgression by entering a twilight world: attending a secret, orgiastic gathering, at which he is an intruder. It is for this segment that the film is best known: its glitteringly dark, dream-like depiction of a sinister, masquerade sex party. Much is left unexplained, elevating the sense of danger.

What these books (and the resulting films) share is their portrayal of the lure of the forbidden. However much we experience and possess and taste, it is never quite enough, because our imagination always craves more.

We feel, almost instinctively, the seduction of what lies on the darker side of the mirror, where the norms of social behaviour no longer apply.

George Bataille (in Guilty) wrote: ‘Eroticism is the brink of the abyss. We’re brought to the edge by uncontrolled ecstasy. This is the stage of rupture, of letting go of things.’

Similarly, he said: ‘The need to go astray, to be destroyed, is an extremely private, distant, passionate, turbulent truth.’

And here it is. In fiction, we seek both to ‘escape’ and to ‘find’ ourselves. We seek an echo of our nature within the pages, while hoping also to set aside the constraints of ‘reality’: to ‘lose’ ourselves, as we do in ultimate moments of sexual arousal.

We want danger.

We want extremes.

We want the duality of pleasure and pain.

We want the forbidden.

In Japan, diners delight at the tingle of poison on their lips from the carefully prepared puffer fish, knowing how close they are to danger, to death.

So it can be with our erotic nature.

What greater triumph is there than to feel your mortality and to conquer it?

In reaching a heightened sexual state, we are of the flesh and beyond the flesh: we are corporeal and spiritual. We feel our mortality and we transcend it. At that moment of sublime ecstasy, we ‘defy’ death, becoming more than bone and blood.

We see beyond the mirror.

We see the hidden self.

 

Bibliography

Joseph Kessel: Belle de Jour (1928)

Arthur Schnitzler: Dream Story (1926)

 

To taste my own darkly erotic pen, visit my Amazon page.

 

F. Leonora Solomon kindly first hosted this article as a guest blog on her site.

Many thanks Leonora xxx