W. C. Bamberger: On the Backstretch

On the Backstretch. W. C. Bamberger
Livingstone Alabama: Livingstone Press, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

In 1944, Joyce Cary published The Horse’s Mouth, third in a trilogy of novels that included Herself Surprised (1941) and To Be a Pilgrim (1942). Dealing with the trials and (usually self-inflicted) tribulations of an artist, Gulley Jimson, this comical novel was also made into a film of the same title starring Alec Guinness as Jimson in 1958. The book has, very unfortunately, been out of print for some time – unfortunately because, as Edward Larrissy points out in Blake and Modern Literature (2006), “The Horse’s Mouth is possibly the most Blakean literary work in the language”. Regardless of the extensive allusions and citations of Blake, Cary’s novel is well-worth reading in its own right as a study of an incorrigible artistic temperament written in a rich, slangy language. The film plays up the slapstick elements (and downplays Blake) a little too much to make it one of my favourites, but it remains an intensely enjoyable screen version.

All this serves as a prologue – but a necessary one – to Bamberger’s novel which was published in December 2009. Cary’s original work begins with Jimson having just been released from prison and Bamberger takes this incarceration during 1938-9 as the premise for his own book. This is the second novel by Bamberger, whose other work includes studies of William Eastlake and Kenward Elmslie, and it reads more as a novella than full-blown novel: although the publishers claim that it stands on its own, most readers will probably (and quite rightly) be attracted to it because of familiarity with The Horse’s Mouth.

The events of On the Backstretchtake place over a few weeks in an unspecified prison where Bamberger has been sent for stealing from a collector, Hickson. Aside from Jimson himself, a grubbing artist who combines sardonic delight in his own failures with a passionate desire to paint and occasional flashes of generosity of spirit to those around him, the characters of Joyce’s novel play no part in On the Backstretch other than to sketch out background colour to Jimson’s history. Rather, his primary dealings are with two new characters: Milt, a maths school teacher imprisoned for throwing one of his pupils, the son of the woman he loves, out of a window, and Heyley, chaplain of the gaol who takes a neglectfully benevolent interest in the dissolute artist and commissions him to produce engravings for the chapel.

These two figures are drawn, unsurprisingly, from Milton and William Hayley (indeed, Heyley is misspelt with an “a” at one point), and the structure for Bamberger’s novel is very loosely based on Blake’s Milton a Poem and some aspects of Blake’s life. As Jimson remarks:

Blake, poet and engraver without peer, was himself once in danger of going to prison. The world has always been kind to the dreamers among us, stopping them from drifting away by chaining their legs if need be. Blake was on a longer tether than most, his high holy air taking him well above the plainchant of 3 Fountain Court. ‘Twas his wife Catherine’s wide hips that moored him, would be my wager. (5)

Bamberger does a good job of catching something of Cary’s style (Betjamin described him as a “Lord of Language”), and if it is not always pitch perfect it is, perhaps, because the difficulty of crafting a careful and respectful pastiche towards a writer whose subject is the dissolute and insolent. Nonetheless, there are many occasions where the author rises to the challenge of Cary’s knotty, witty mixture of vernacular and obscurantism that itself owes not a little to Blake as well as Cary’s nearer Irish contemporaries such as Joyce:

I knew a little of the writing of the Bible. Not that of His Majesty King James, or Tyndale’s before that, or the Geneva (Shakespeare’s reading), but the original, come down to us in loose papyrus sheets and translations and Babylonian jars, in Aramaic and Ugarit. (Site of a deadly rifle fight; Syrian desert bandits head-to-head with archaeologists for crumbling tablets. Someone should make a film drama of it.) A library is a handy place to come in out of the rain. But unless a man shines himself up with the glaze of a stack of study books, the librarians get out their iron punting shoes. So I knew that the Hebrew the scribes recorded in was consonants only; and a religious man would know the vowels by heart. So the true Bible was fully half holes, blanks that any reader had to fill for him or herself. (55)

Bamberger’s obscure plays did raise the pedant in me a couple of times: Heyley has a copy of one of Blake’s original designs to Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of the Recording Angel in his office – as Jimson himself points out, the only known copy of the watercolour is in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, but we are presented with a suitably implausible story that Heyley’s grandfather was Henry Cary who had commissioned an untraced set of the Dantes. While that is an acrobatic stretch that is admirable for its inventiveness (if not the notion that Heyley would allow it to be placed in the corridor outside Jimson’s cell), a couple of other minor features jar slightly. Thus, as well as a small, thirty-twomo edition of Jerusalem, which I am fairly sure does not match the Russell and Maclagen 1904 edition (more or less the only one that would have been available at the time), the prison library also includes a copy of the Blake illustrated A Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, which was not reprinted with Blake’s engravings between 1813 and 1963, making it a rare book indeed in 1938.

This is nitpicking with a Urizenic intensity, and none of these factors really diminished my pleasure in the book: the allusions to war and Hitler, however, were somewhat different in spirit to Cary’s original intentions. The approach of war is hardly mentioned at all in The Horse’s Mouth, creeping in towards the end with several possible interpretations: bearing in mind that Cary’s novel was published in 1944, it may be a reflection on the fact that whatever Jimson’s misdemeanours, these are nothing compared to the coming horror or his childlike ignorance of what will follow. Alternatively, and bearing in mind the anarchistic sympathies of Jimson’s friend, Plantie, it may be that the artist and his compatriots are dismissive of all political nationalisms, showing a contempt for Hitler by largely refusing to allow him the significance he demands. This is subtly changed in On the Backstretch: there are constant reminders of the approaching conflict, as when Heyley observes that the copper used by Jimson may have to be appropriated for the war effort. While the chronology is not explicitly mapped out, I did wander how much people would have been generally talking this way when appeasement was still in the air in late 1938, or how Jimson’s (and other characters’) apparent amnesia could be explained in Cary’s novel.

Such background, while distracting, should not deter readers from engaging with the real thrust of Bamberger’s novel, which is an appropriately vague retelling of Milton. This schema is indicated in the second chapter, where Jimson announces to the intended reader of his autobiography:

It may be that some of these travels I’m going to tell were only mental. I see through my memory, not with it, and my eye may improve it in the retelling. Not lies, but Los, Billy Blake’s Spirit of Creation. And despite my acquaintance with some of the best tutors in the profession, I’m no jailer. If Los wants to run rough over my memory, I’m not about to chain him down. (8)

Rather like the spiritual autobiography of Milton a Poem, Jimson identifies himself with Los (via Blake), with Milt standing in for Milton and Heyley for Hayley/Satan. Bamberger provides a delightfully light touch when dealing with the mild-mannered chaplain whose apparent desire to secure Jimson’s ease in the prison is in fact a trap that will tempt him away from his own art – something that Heyley has no understanding of when he regretfully informs the artist that his etched copper plates have been converted into “sentimental letter openers”. The humour is a little more heavy-handed when dealing with Milt, the dour maths teacher who, like Milton seeking Ololon, wishes to be united with his Hindu Lila. There is, however, a great Blakean touch when Jimson realises how he can unite Milt with his love, inspiration striking him as he bends down to tie a shoelace in a mundane re-enactment of the moment when Blake straps on his sandal after Los descends into his left foot.

On the Backstretch is a strange little novel, wonderful in its way. At one point, perhaps a point where the author reflects on his own difficulties, Jimson ponders Blake’s injunction to create his own system:

Myself, I’d long been a comfortable elf to Olde Billy St. Nick. Because so complete is his system (and so completely did he turn his back on the given world) that I’d hardly ever found a question to which he didn’t have a poetic answer at the ready.
And yet, there remained one question – one hardly worth mentioning, though it was steady becoming a constant flea bite to me. I had often thought, as I read and reread Blake, how I was betraying his spirit by being an enthusiast. In following him I was neglecting to make my own system. His own words would clip the tag of “slave to another” in my piggish ear. To follow him was to betray him. (87-8)

And this is Bamberger’s own difficulty, for he follows not one system but two, that of Cary as well as Blake. Those who have not read The Horse’s Mouth will probably be bemused by On the Backstretch, but as a reminder of the many virtues of the earlier novel Bamberger does not at least betray the spirit of Joyce Cary, even if he does follow him.

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