The Unpronounceable

Adam Mars-Jones

  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
    Picador, 194 pp, £12.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 4472 8051 4

The practice of modelling in negative space, making absent volume perform as part of the dynamism of the whole, is a standard technique in visual arts, in sculpture above all, but there is a parallel set of strategies available to writers, even if it doesn’t formally go by that name. When Rayner Heppenstall published Four Absentees, his version of an autobiography, for instance, he chose not to recount his life directly but to project a diffused self-portrait onto four well-known cultural figures who had been his friends (Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Eric Gill and John Middleton Murry), evoking them first separately and then in some slightly dizzying comparisons:

I had seen Murry working, happily absorbed and with real skill, mending fences, sawing up logs (once, too absorbed), laying down barrels of Sauerkraut, cutting up the cabbages with me on a bread-slicing machine. I had seen Orwell in this state only when he was cooking. Dylan worked trance-like at his poems, but lacked, I think, any manual dexterity. Happy absorption had been Gill’s state most of his life, and, certainly, it was not the stresses of the machine age that killed him, but (or so one supposed) fine stone-dust irritating his lungs as he worked at one of his crafts, making things well.

Heppenstall himself is manifested in the complex discontinuities and areas of overlap between his subjects, and also of course in the way he writes – the understatement of the first parenthesis in the quoted passage is highly characteristic. At another point he says, of Middleton Murry, with similar indirection, ‘His greatest unfriendliness to me had been intended friendliness to my wife.’ This is the tonal expression of the character responsible for shaping the book, a reticence not drawn to direct self-exposure but with plenty to say for itself.

It’s also possible to model a fictional character in negative space, though the effect isn’t an easy one to bring off. Henry Green, another writer with a taste for hiding in plain sight, at a distance from the material of his books but present in every syncopated phrase, manages it very effectively in Nothing (1950). The key figure in the novel is the widowed Jane Weatherby, who sees an opportunity to reclaim her ex-lover John Pomfret when their children (her son Philip, his daughter Mary) fall in love. Realising that only one of the two possible Weatherby-Pomfret marriages can take place, with one killing off the other, she sets out to sabotage the young couple. Her devious manipulations are horribly plain to the reader but go undetected by the other characters. The effect of so much conversation and so little authorial commentary is one of queasy complicity in Jane’s manoeuvres, along with a feeling that we’re somehow missing something. How does she get away with her schemes, for instance detaching John from his partner, Liz? The missing element seems to be something not directly mentioned, a physical attractiveness that affects both friends and strangers (waiters seem particularly susceptible). Jane’s eyes are regularly described as ‘great’ (‘Those great eyes were limpid with what seemed to be innocence’), just as her young daughter’s are described as ‘enormous’, but it is possible to have ‘great eyes’ and not be altogether lovely.

Then, very late in the novel, Green fills in what he has left blank, in a scene of John watching Jane by the fire as evening comes on (it has been established that Jane likes dusk, and wouldn’t ‘turn on the lights until she couldn’t see to move’):

he could outline her heavy head laid next his only in a soft blur with darker hair over her great eye above the gentle fire-wavering profile of her nose, and, because he was nearest to this living pile of coals in the grate, he could see into this eye, into the two transparencies which veiled it, down to that last surface which at three separate points glowed with the fire’s same rose; as he sat at her lazy side it must have seemed to him he was looking right into Jane, relaxed inert and warm, a being open to himself the fire and the comfort of indoors but with three great furnaces quiescent in her lovely head just showing through eyeholes to warn a man, if warning were needed, that she could be very much awake, did entirely love him with molten metal within her bones, within the cool back of her skull which under its living weight of hair was deeply, deeply known by his fingers.

In a book with a lusher texture this passage might not have a great deal of impact, but here it has immense power. At this late stage, with barely three pages of the book to go, Jane is manifested as a positive power, in a way that simply overwhelms the reader’s objections, partly thanks to the disorienting choice of registers, both blurred and precise, thermodynamic and anatomical. Jane’s amorality is unchanged: she has time before the end of the book to dispatch her daughter Penelope (whose fragility has been a reliable excuse for her mother to avoid things she didn’t want to do) to boarding school, now that she’ll be in the way. It isn’t relevant. Her beauty fills the empty spaces in the book.

What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell’s brilliantly controlled first novel, starts with a sustained exercise in the literary modelling of negative space. The unnamed narrator is an American living in Sofia who becomes involved with a hustler called Mitko – ‘hustler’ has the wrong overtones, 1970s Times Square overtones, for a Bulgarian setting, but at least conveys the basic fact that Mitko is sexually available at a price. The two men meet in the traditionally charged and empty space of a lavatory, though not a particularly sordid one, located as it is in the basement of the National Palace of Culture, with an old woman stationed in a booth outside to collect the fifty stotinki required for admission. Mitko, 23 at the time of their meeting, ‘tall, thin but broad-shouldered, with the close-cropped military cut of hair popular among certain young men in Sofia, who affect a hypermasculine style and an air of criminality’, is talking loudly with a friend when the narrator enters, though the reputation of these lavatories has nothing to do with conversation.

Readers from territories where a sense of gay entitlement has established itself, starting off with an assumption of cultural superiority, are likely to be struck by the lack of furtiveness in the sexual transactions described. Bulgaria doesn’t feature strongly in gay constructions of the world, except as the etymological root of the word bugger, a slander on the Bogomil heretics of a millennium ago, although some might remember that the first gay pride march in Sofia, in 2008, was enthusiastically attacked with bottles, rocks and homemade bombs. Mitko makes no pretence of being straight, of being drawn into dealings with men only by the need for money. Honesty isn’t always encouraged in this context. The ‘straight’ hustler is a venerable figure in gay lore, and for a long time etiquette required those who were not yet called sex workers to make some sort of display of a heterosexual persona. The sense that gay men were sexually inauthentic, so that a ‘real man’ was required to make good the deficit, was remarkably widespread and persistent, either as a tragic fact or a convention with its own pleasures. The supposed impossibility of gay life without men who didn’t want to have sex with men was most richly presented, with irony but not actual dismissal, by Proust:

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