An interview with Jonathan Kemp
304 pages • Myriad Editions • August 19, 2010
One of the first things that strikes me on meeting Jonathan Kemp the person is also one of the first things that struck me on reading Jonathan Kemp the writer. There is a deceptively relaxed quality to his writing that is disarming, bewitching and, to be honest, more than a little sexy. I was pulled instantly into the three distinct stories, the three similar worlds, of London Triptych. There is the London of the 1890s, and the rent boy Jack Rose; the London of the late 1990s, and the male escort David; and the London of the 1950s, and the painter Colin Read. The three stories explore a subculture and an underworld that is hidden from the everyday, yet whilst they are historically and socially distinct tales each one echoes a universal experience. As a writer, Jonathan is somewhat akin to the Pied Piper if only because there is something magical you cannot help but follow. Talking to him about the book, and about the act of writing, I have precisely the same feeling about the person.
Jonathan teaches Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Birkbeck, and London Triptych is his first novel. “I attempted to get two early novels out in the ‘90s,” he tells me. “I moved to London with the intention of taking the world by storm, as all writers do. The first novel I wrote I sent to only one publisher who didn’t take it. Rather than being thick-skinned and persisting I put it in a drawer and started on another one. And that one was almost published by a company that went under. The second they were going to bring it out they went bankrupt. It was a very small press called Paper Drum. It was rejected by Serpent’s Tail so again I didn’t persist.
“At that time I got waylaid as I was living with an actor. I started to write monologues for him. From about ’94 to ’98 we ran a theatre company. The plays were performed in little venues. The first one was performed at the ICA. We did the same play in the basement at Central Station. It just got bigger and bigger and after three one-man shows we did a two-hander, and then the next three or four plays had a cast of about five people in them. Ultimately none of us were making any money so it fizzled out. Then I went off in ’98 to do a PhD. I also started this book, and it went through different manifestations.”
London Triptych started out as a short story called ‘Pornocracy’, which told the tale of Jack Rose, one of the boys who testified against Oscar Wilde in 1895. I asked how that story then developed into a novel.
“The short story was only Jack. Wilde has fascinated me ever since I discovered him as a teenager. But there is little known or written about the boys. I thought it would be interesting to reverse the story and make Wilde a bit player in Jack’s life. When I finished the story I started to think about how it could become a novel by having three narrators and exploring three areas of gay history. It made sense to have one story in the ‘50s because that was characteristically a period of great secrecy in which you were risking everything. There was constant harassment from the police, and potential imprisonment. I wanted the character of Colin to be an artist because of the themes of representation in the book, and the link with the painter in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Then it made sense to jump forward another fifty years. It was only later that I thought of linking the stories.”
London Triptych is such a confident, assured book in which the three stories follow clear and comparable paths that I found this surprising. Yet the confidence has to come from the writer first. This is something that, as a teacher, Jonathan tries to impress on his students. “When things occurred I knew which character was speaking to me,” he says of the process in which the book was pieced together. “Characters speak to you. I often say to my students that if you stumble across an interesting character you should stick with them and listen to them. It sounds crazy, because the idea of the author as a god who is constructing things is a dominant one, but I think it helps to be passive in relation to characters and stories and let the things come to us rather than actively fixing it all together. Let the story appear and unfold.”
Throughout London Triptych the painter Colin is building toward his first major work, his own London Triptych. It feels so right when his story comes together and this painting is revealed that I ask Jonathan if he always had this conclusion in mind. “The triptych was a very last detail. The book was originally going to be called Feasting with Panthers, which is a phrase that Wilde used about the boys he used to hang out with. And I still have a reference to that at the end. My agent didn’t like the title, and when I did a search I found that there were two books in the last ten years that had that title. I wanted London in there, and the title triptych reflected the three stories, so I decided at the last minute to have Colin working on his own triptych.” This may sound like an accident, and yet it is far more like evolution by natural selection. It is one of the reasons that the book is so immediate, and the narrative so genuine.
This is almost the opposite of what I expected when I first read the blurb. The 1950s again? Oscar Wilde again? Rent boys and the gay underworld again? Really? Isn’t this ground so well trodden as to have become sodden marshland? I only read on because the writer Clayton Littlewood recommended it and I trust his judgement. All that said, I had put these questions on hold by the end of the first page, and dismissed them altogether by the end of the first instalment from each of the three narrators. I was not alone in my reaction to this disarming, bewitching quality to the writing. The book had generated such a buzz within weeks of its publication that Gay’s the Word bookshop had to fit in two readings on an evening when one was originally scheduled. I talked about the book to the manager, Jim McSweeney, and we agreed that it was the best gay fiction we’d read since Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane. London Triptych is on the shortlist for The Green Carnation Prize, an award for gay men’s fiction and memoir that, coincidentally, also makes its debut this year. And that circles back to Oscar Wilde again. The green carnation was a secret signal to others of a similar persuasion and the title of an 1894 novel in which Wilde appeared thinly disguised.
As someone who finds The Picture of Doran Gray overrated, and Wilde generally quite tiresome, I ask Jonathan what it is about the man and his work that continues to fascinate educated gay men. “I think that what Wilde represents, or came to represent, was the model of modern homosexuality,” he begins. “I think the hold he has is that we see someone in the middle of what is characteristically a rather dull and conformist age, the Victorian age, deliberately being against the norm in a very brave way. In a similar way to Crisp we see him as a pioneer. As gay men we like the idea of self-invention. How many of us have moved to the city and reinvented ourselves according to how we would like to be? I think Wilde is our glorious leader in that sense.”
Then it is more his life than his writing? “The writing is something else. Famously he said I put my talent into my writing and my genius into my life. The writing is sublime and it is pitching itself against the norm. He was queer before queer was invented. Everyone else was writing heavy, verbose works, and he wrote slim books that were ornate and poetical and refused to be sucked into the realist machinery of Victorian fiction.” Then he adds, “Of course, he was gloriously funny, which goes a long way.”
I remain unconvinced about Wilde, whom I find to be too much about the shiny surface, too much about the art of deflection. And so I return the idea of the writer listening to the voices of the characters if only because I was taken with how Jack’s voice stands clear and honest against Wilde’s self-important monologues. It is a loaded question, consequently, but I ask Jonathan if he has a favourite of the three voices. “It’s hard to say because I became really fond of all three of them. It’s interesting to hear which characters other people like. There are some who really can’t stand Jack and others who think he is the most adorable. A friend of mine didn’t like Jack because of what he did to Wilde. I liked Jack because it was refreshing and liberating to write in a voice that pre-exists all the moral and psychological and social structures that pen in desire in the 20th century. He comes from a class that is just going to do and he finds a way of doing. And it’s arguably his proximity to Wilde that corrupts him, and makes him reflective, and that reflection makes him do what he did.”
In the midst of all the ideas, and the emotional life of the characters in London Triptych, is a fair amount of sex. “It was very important to me that it was if not sexy then at least sexual. And sexual in a very different way, one that wasn’t necessarily pornographic. We compartmentalise genres so easily, so problematically, and I think it’s a shame.” He pauses and then adds, “Anyway, you can’t have a novel about male prostitution and not have sex in it. It was important to get it right and I was concerned about it because either it would be totally unpublishable or it would be pigeon-holed as ‘that dirty book’.” London Triptych is one of those rare cases in which that balance works and does not feel spurious or forced. It is sexy rather than just having sex in it.
For the reading at Gay’s the Word, Jonathan chose one segment from each narrative. For Jack he read a graphic scene in which Wilde takes him to an orgy. It is, of course, nothing less than Dionysian. When we’re talking about this element of the book he says, laughing, “I’m waiting for someone to say, ‘I had the best wank when I was reading your book’.” There is something of a mischievous turn to the conversation at this point, and as we are talking about the character David, Jonathan adds that no one has yet asked what he thought they’d ask about him. And what would that be? “Whether his story is autobiographical, whether I’d dabbled in prostitution.” I nod. “I have an answer prepared,” he says with a smile. “No, but I did know Oscar Wilde.”
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