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:

I have thought it as well to utter here a provisional warning against the lamentable error of proposing (just as people have encouraged a Zionist movement) to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom. For, no sooner had they arrived there than the Sodomites would leave the town so as not to have the appearance of belonging to it, would take wives, keep mistresses in other cities where they would find, incidentally, every diversion that appealed to them. They would repair to Sodom only on days of supreme necessity, when their own town was empty, at those seasons when hunger drives the wolf from the woods; in other words, everything would go on very much as it does today in London, Berlin, Petrograd or Paris.

In general capitals and resort towns learn to be more gay-friendly, since they have a stake in the prosperity that comes from the marketing of tolerance. Such permissions can seem provisional, the welcome superficial, and the testing moment is when arrangements unravel and the safety net is not there. The narrator experiences this in Varna, Mitko’s hometown by the sea, after a fight with Mitko, who hits him, just once and without real force, but in a way that makes clear that some boundary has been crossed, even if neither of them had necessarily known it was there. The narrator is frightened in his shabby, insecure hotel room and wants to be moved to a different one, in case Mitko comes back, having more fully occupied this new persona (new only in this context, since he’s always getting into fights and seems to enjoy them). The hotel manager – perhaps too grand a term for another elderly person in a booth – is unexpectedly understanding: ‘It’s a shame there are such people in the world, he said, you have to be so careful, you pay them, you have your fun, and then they should leave – but sometimes they don’t leave, they want more than you agreed.’ The narrator is paralysed by humiliation at this softly shaming sympathy, almost worse than the malice or scorn he had been anticipating.

The exploration of unfamiliar surroundings through the lens of desire is a well-established trope. The quality that makes What Belongs to You so distinctive is the tightness of the focus on Mitko. Any temptation to see him as an embodiment of the new Bulgaria, hopeful, set free from the past but already defeated, is contradicted by the quality of attention lavished on him. It’s not necessarily true that the narrator only feels alive in Mitko’s company, or when thinking about him, but it certainly seems so, thanks to the formal decision to keep any other aspect of this American resident in Bulgaria under wraps, except to the extent that his experience of Mitko strikes a spark from his past or his present. Even the basic information about the narrator, scanty as it is, emerges from his first conversation with Mitko, conducted in a pidgin of Bulgarian, English and German (the narrator can get by in Bulgarian, but there are limits to his proficiency): ‘We established that I was American, that I had been in his city for a few weeks and would stay at least a year, that I was a teacher at the American College, that my name was more or less unpronounceable in his language.’ There’s an assumption that formal choices restrict emotional range, in fiction and everywhere else, but there’s plenty of evidence to point the other way. Apparently abstract decisions can have a real kick.

Prostitution as a subject lends itself to any number of cheap analogies. For Jean-Luc Godard it was a figure of capitalism, for Philip Larkin it shadowed every intimate relationship, since he assumed that men were doomed to pay for their pleasure one way or another. Here it is treated without hysteria or dogma, as only one manifestation of globalisation among so many, a matter of availability without equality, so that financial particles must stream from one body to another in a effort to maintain equilibrium. The narrator provokes the traumatic fight with Mitko by spelling out his own entitlement, listing his expenses and consigning Mitko to the single identity of prostitute, making him a hustler and nothing more.

Mitko has other ‘friends’ – he insists on the noble status of friendship while he takes it to market – and at one point, spending the evening with the narrator, goes online to chat with some of them. He even introduces one to the narrator, innocently engineering a tricky passage of manners in the age of Skype, as two customers of the same rent boy uneasily acknowledge each other through the computer screen.

It’s the narrator’s computer that is the occasion for one of the tenderest passages in the book, all the more touching for being displaced from the person, when Mitko uses tissue after tissue to clean with great thoroughness first the screen, then the keyboard, which is almost as dirty, and finally its aluminium case. He then shows the narrator pictures of himself on a social networking site, taken a couple of years earlier.

I was shocked by the difference between their faces, the man in the image and the man beside me; not only was his tooth unbroken, but also his head was unshaved, his hair full and light brown, conventionally cut. There was nothing rough or threatening about him at all; he looked like a nice kid, a kid I might have had in class at the prestigious school where I teach. It was hardly possible they could be the same person, this prosperous teenager and the man beside me, or that so short a time could have made such a difference, and I found myself looking repeatedly at the screen and then at Mitko, wondering which face was the truer face, and how it had been lost or gained.

This runs admirably counter to the standard scenario, whereby the native exists to dramatise the complexities of the visitor. At this point Mitko, simply by the fact of having a past, exists in more dimensions than the narrator.

If the narrator has a past then it is only deducible from the effect of its drag on the present, as a fishing boat might ride low in the water with a record-breaking catch in its nets, or when entangled with a submarine. His withholding of information about himself – even his age has to be worked out from widely spaced hints, the one certainty being that he’s older than Mitko – is plausibly explained by the formula ‘guarding a secret felt so much like guarding the self,’ an observation prompted by the special circumstances of a Bulgarian STD clinic but seeming to resonate more widely. When the narrator visits a park in the Pirin mountains, for instance, he finds that nature as it surrounds him, with seedpods being released promiscuously by grasses and trees, for once lives up to the ‘unhinged eroticism’ of Whitman’s poems, something that had embarrassed him while he was teaching the texts. Suddenly he understands that Whitman’s descriptions aren’t exaggerated but exact, and can even feel something of Whitman’s desire to be ‘naked before the world’, despite the actual character of his life, full of inhibition and missed chances. His intent description of the playful interaction of a small girl and her father seems to be in counterpoint with unrevealed personal experience even before, a half-page later (‘she laughed with a joy it was difficult for me to recognise, so certain it seemed of a home among the things of the world’), some sort of indefinite connection is made.


The first section of What Belongs to You, ‘Mitko’, was published, ‘in a very different form’ as a note insists, as a self-contained novella of the same name by Miami University Press in 2011. It’s an indication of Garth Greenwell’s commitment to his writing that he should describe the two versions as very different, when in fact the correspondence is close. This isn’t a radical reworking but what most people would call a tidy-up, though he has removed an occasional preachy passage: ‘How can we account for them, time and chance that together strip us of our promise, making of our lives almost always less than we imagined or was imagined for us, not maliciously or with any other intent, but simply because the measure of the world’s solicitude is small?’

Presumably it was the positive reception of the free-standing piece that suggested the filling out of the canvas with (as it turns out) two more panels, having slightly diverging perspectives. The first difference in the second section, ‘A Grave’, is a greater closeness in the texture of the writing on the page, expressed – or even enforced – by the absence of paragraph breaks, so that the whole section amounts to a slab of prose forty pages long. Greenwell’s paragraph protocol has always tended towards larger blocks than is fashionable (yes, there are fashions in page layout, and paragraphs have become increasingly choppy over the decades), but this is something different. The reader has a sense of an increased and potentially oppressive display of authorial control. Permission to pause while reading has been symbolically withdrawn. There’s a sensation of being forcibly held beneath the surface of the writing, with results that may feel a little like drowning.

There’s a reason for the increased pressure being transmitted through the prose, and that’s the need to maintain an impression of unified material though the rules of engagement of the book have in fact been changed. Intercut with impressions of Sofia in the aftermath of the affair with Mitko is a new element of reminiscence. The narrator has a past after all, and it destabilises the balance achieved earlier. The cue for the lifting of the embargo on direct memories is the arrival at the American College of a message saying that the narrator’s father is gravely ill and wants to be visited, despite their long-standing estrangement. The narrator isn’t expected to continue with his lesson, and walks across the city as memories flow strongly through him, memories from childhood and also information about his father recently passed on to him by one of his two sisters when they stayed with him in Sofia not long before. The transitions between the present, the walk on a hot September day, and the distressing incidents from personal history that well up into the narrator’s mind as he walks would be very abrupt if they were allowed to be, if a break between paragraphs acknowledged the discontinuity and the very real possibility of derailment. So the whole principle of paragraphing has to be suspended for the duration of the section. The reader’s civil rights are restricted, and a literary martial law imposed.

If the Bulgaria on offer in What Belongs to You seems socially progressive in some marginal way, the narrator’s American experience, as recounted in the continuation of ‘Mitko’, is almost determinedly retro in its trauma and alienation. Primal scene succeeds primal scene. There was some sort of honeymoon between father and son, a time when they could lie warmly together in a field, and even take showers together:

I wanted to touch him, not with an outcome in mind but with an ache, perhaps not an intention but an ache, which drove me to him and which he felt, too, when I put my arms around him and pressed my body to his and he felt my erection where it touched him. That was the end of care, he thrust me away without a thought for the slickness of the tiles; and when I looked at his face, which was twisted in disgust, it was as if I saw his true face, his authentic face, not the learned face of fatherhood.

As if one hammer-blow of Oedipal fate wasn’t enough, the next sentence pile-drives the message home: ‘He covered himself quickly and left the room, saying nothing, but his look entered me and settled there and has never left, it rooted beneath memory and became my understanding of myself, my understanding and expectation.’

From that point on, naturally enough, ‘there was nothing to replace the closeness I had lost with my father,’ and he took refuge in books. Somewhat later in his young life, early in his teens, he struck up an intense friendship with a boy his own age, similarly bookish. Their affinity, before they met, had been noticed by mutual friends. The beginning of a friendship was engineered by one of these friends making a phone call, saying, ‘You like the same writers,’ and passing the receiver across. There follows a reprieve from solitude, with a telephone intimacy that deepens and becomes its own little world before the risky step is taken of testing compatibility in physical space. The narrator is frightened by the idea of his new friend seeing ‘the body that increasingly felt alien to me, outsized and malformed, that in no way conformed to my sense of myself, to the self I lived inwardly’.

The experiment, arranged as a sleepover, is a success. The boys have pizza in the narrator’s basement room, then sneak out through the garage and wander through the neighbourhood, which is decorated for Halloween, finding a deepening of compatibility in every joke and observation. Back at the house, they share a bed (a waterbed, even) and an embrace with sexual overtones though no sexual expression: ‘I was turned towards him, pressed against his back with my arms still around him, and where my hands met at his chest he crossed his own arms over them.’ When he wakes the next morning his friend has been taken ill, has vomited and is vomiting again. Food poisoning, the narrator assumes, though they have eaten the same things and he himself is fine. In the car on the way back to the friend’s home (the narrator’s father is driving) there is, unsurprisingly, a smell of vomit. The friend talks politely to the father, but seems to reject the narrator. ‘I felt him turn from me, in that foul air I felt him identify me as foulness. It was as though he felt my father was health and I contagion, and I was at once bewildered by this and unsurprised.’ This all happens a matter of hours after meeting, with delight in all the things they share, the long-yearned-for friend. As in any other case of increased central control, there’s a risk of rebellion, in this case helpless mutiny against too fiercely imposed a mood. There’s something latently comic about the rapidity of the collapse of hopes, and a tiny bubble of potential laughter struggles to rise up through the layers of immaculate prose. Not since Carrie’s prom night, surely, with the misfit redeemed from ostracism standing radiantly in front of her peers in her pretty dress, clutching her bouquet and her crown, while the bucket of pig’s blood wobbles high above her head, has a moment of social breakthrough turned so rapidly to smoking ruin.

The feeling of discomfort in the reading experience comes ultimately from a mismatch between the conventions of the Bulgarian sections of the book and the American ones. It’s not just the fact, though it’s striking enough, that if you had no other source of information than What Belongs to You, you would have to conclude that Bulgaria was a place of sexual enlightenment, some sort of rough-and-ready rainbow republic, while in America rigid familial attitudes made it close to impossible for gay men to lead lives of any dignity. In Bulgaria the streets and the people have names (at least in the centre of Sofia, where ‘the nation’s whole history, its victories and defeats, the many indignities and small prides of a small country, play out in the names of its avenues and squares’), while in America almost everything is generic. The result is a narrative of gay oppression and self-oppression whose natural home would seem to be the 1950s. The father is full of loathing: ‘A faggot, he said, if I had known you would never have been born. You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?’ The mother’s love is flinched from but guiltily relied on. As in the 1950s, heterosexuality is presented as a fairy tale in opposition to the horror story of deviance, so that the insipid and the morbid exist in a caricatural counterpoint. The narrator understands this when he is invited to the house of the friend who stayed the night so disastrously, and who is now seeing a girl. His parents claim to be vigilant about any possible misbehaviour by the boy and his girlfriend, but this is only a charade:

It was clear what they felt for each other, their feelings were bright and open, sure of their place; if there were certain obstacles to be overcome they were just for show, scenery for a drama everyone would applaud. Even their parents would applaud it, they only pretended to disapprove, when what they really felt was indulgence and pride and the sweetness of youth, their own youth that they could remember and relive and sanction.

There’s a certain undercurrent to this idyll, just the same. The role in which the narrator has been cast is as a decoy chaperone, parentally delegated to forestall any sexual goings-on but actually posted inside the room, with his back to the door, to give warning of any adult approach. When first foreplay then actual sex get under way, it becomes clear that there is a further symbolic dimension to his presence. The narrator sees that his rejecting friend

was watching me, that he had seen me watching them and was waiting for me to look up. He caught me and held my gaze without welcome or warmth or any hint of what we had shared, and my sense of having violated something, of having looked where I shouldn’t have faded, as I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was, how free of the foulness my father had shown him; and now that I had seen it, I knew our friendship had run its course.

This scene, with its poisonous sexual dynamic, could be a moment from Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, a novel widely regarded as a landmark evocation of the 1950s. White’s novel has the advantage, in terms of the specificity that can confer classic status on material otherwise likely to seem banal. A reference by the narrator of What Belongs to You to having grown up ‘at the height of the Aids panic’ is a startling reminder of the perceptual slippage involved, three decades’ worth, between the time that seems to be evoked and the actual date of the narrated events.

The consequences of the narrator’s third primal scene, the one where he must play the part of rejected witness, don’t end with the end of the friendship: ‘I’ve sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire; sometimes I think it’s the only thing I’ve sought.’ One more trauma to add to the tally. What with the father’s look of disgust, rooted beneath memory, followed up by the suggestion that faggots should never have been born, and now the friend’s gaze branding him with an addiction to excluded desire, there’s enough destructive sexual programming here to last a lifetime. The only surprise is that he should have reached Sofia in an approximately functional condition.

Names in the book are a particular problem after its first section. When the narrator’s sisters visit, the younger one is identified as ‘G.’, a maddening mannerism, while the older doesn’t even earn an initial letter. If this anonymous sister makes no contribution to the narrative, why include her at all? When the first section of the book was published as a novella, the note about its author didn’t shy away from suggesting a basis in autobiography: ‘Garth Greenwell lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he teaches at the American College of Sofia.’ The equivalent page of What Belongs to You mentions only the city of his birth and educational CV. The narrator’s betraying friend is identified as ‘K.’, an initial on which Kafka is normally considered to have the global copyright. Why K.? The answer is, presumably, because that was the letter with which his name started ‘in real life’, just as the sister must be present in the novel because she was there in the flesh, but appeals to reality have no force in this context, since by definition nothing is raw that reaches a page.

By the time of the third section, ‘Pox’, the narrator is happily involved in a monogamous relationship with a Portuguese man named ‘R.’ Admittedly the territory of autobiographical writing is so mined with bluff and double-bluff that it’s probably simpler to say that bluff and double-bluff are the territory. But with these choices the writer seems to be opening up for his own benefit a space that the reader cannot occupy. How is it possible to read this passage for instance, when the relevant names have been withheld?

[Mitko] said my name, or not my name but that syllable he used to approximate it, since my name was unpronounceable in his language; he had tried to say it at first but each time stumbled over sounds he couldn’t make, the intricate shapes that made him shake his head in bemusement. I had felt this myself with R.; the English version of his name is common enough, but it sounded strange in Portuguese, and though I practised pronouncing it endlessly and though I’m good at learning languages, each time I said his name R. would laugh, and so I stopped using it.

It’s possible to summon up ‘Garth’ as the unpronounceable syllable – in fact it’s not possible to summon up anything else. But what of the Portuguese name, so familiar yet so baffling? Only possessors of the Miami University Press version of Mitko can do more than try to imagine Portuguese names beginning with R, since that little book is dedicated to (and its author portrait taken by) Ricardo Moutinho Ferreira. But for readers of What Belongs to You this is no longer a matter of modelling in negative space, merely of defective modelling. It begins to look as if Mitko is given a full first name (though his last name is another initial, B.) not because he’s the most important person in the book but because as a Bulgarian prostitute he doesn’t have enough status to earn anonymity. Though the first section of the novel is strongly energised by what is left out, namely all the historical reasons for the narrator to be attracted to a man not just because of his beauty but his ‘freedom from doubts and self-gnawing’, his tensions become less compelling once they are made explicit. What has been kept out of sight turns out to be the lugubrious furniture of fraught gay identity, old-style.