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