Thursday, April 29, 2004

Last exit

So, Hubert Selby Jnr, one of the great writers of 20C America, has shuffled off his mortal coil. As I said on Poetryetc today, "It wasn't his writing that was obscene, it was the realities his writing revealed: and he was conscious of the difference. I don't think anyone has written the link between homophobia and misogyny more clearly than in the central story about the union official (Strike) in Last Exit to Brooklyn." Which prompted from Kenneth Wolman the response: "nobody before you has opened up the Harry Black sequence quite like this". I find that statement impossible to believe, since it seems such an obvious reading, but perhaps the aura of shock the book generated has obscured some of its extraordinary humanity. What does Harry Black loathe and fear and desire so much, as the repressed softness in himself? The vulnerable child, the "feminine" he can't admit, which disgusts him in his wife, and arouses him in men? The lack of self awareness caused by his self-hatred is itself a crucifixion...But thinking about Strike, the first thing that popped into my head was Death in Venice. Which may seem wholly incongruous: but I guess both these works show men internally divided from a fiercely repressed self, which exteriorises itself in accepted representations of masculinity (the Great Writer, the union leader); and when the repression no longer works, their desires kill them.

As I was sitting on the train this afternoon, on my way to parent/teacher interviews with my daughter, I thought a bit more about this. I first read Last Exit to Brooklyn when I was about 20, and its impact on me was profound. I thought it the most violent and least prurient book I had hitherto read. I also thought that what it was depicting about human beings was true, although I couldn't have said why: it's not as if I had the life experience to fully understand what he was talking about. But I thought it was true in the same way I thought Kafka's Metamorphosis was true. And maybe for the same reasons. Selby himself, in an interview, said of Last Exit to Brooklyn: "I mean, the first time somebody asked me to describe Last Exit , I heard myself say: 'The horrors of a loveless world'. And I think that’s true, the more I ... And that’s many moons ago that I was asked that question. I hadn’t thought about it ahead of time, but that’s what came out of my mouth, and I can’t find any reason to change my mind about that statement."

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