One of the high points of 2010 was reading Jonathan Kemp’s debut novel London Triptych, and then interviewing him a month before its publication. His new book Twenty-Six is a collection of stories, one for every letter of the alphabet, each describing a sexual encounter. The narrator explores the act and what it means to him as he struggles with the capability of language to capture the moments.
I met Kemp in Soho to talk about this book, and his forthcoming novel Hannah Rose.
You can hear snippets of our conversation in the December podcast, and watch Jonathan reading from Twenty-Six in the Multimedia section.
It’s been over a year since we first met to talk about London Triptych. That was before it came out. It’s been enormously well received, and deservedly so. How has that changed your life?
It hasn’t really changed my life very much, but I’m where I always wanted to be, I’m a published writer. The book’s doing well, I’ve got a second one out and a third on the way. So in that respect it’s changed, but I haven’t become a millionaire or anything like that. My life on a day-to-day level is very similar. It’s changed because I’m now doing what I always wanted to do.
What affect has the first book’s success had on your writing?
There’s a greater sense of urgency. I’m writing the second novel at the moment. Obviously when I wrote London Triptych there was no-one waiting at the other end for the manuscript, but now there’s a loose publication date for next year. There’s a certain professionalism to my working day as a writer. Before it was more of a … hobby.
Twenty-Six is a very different book from London Triptych. How did it come about?
Twenty-Six was written just after I’d finished London Triptych, and I’d also completed a PhD in comparative literarture. So my head was buzzing with notions of language as something that creates a world rather than simply describes the world.
I was very fascinated by this concept. I was also exposed to certain writers, like Kathy Acker and Georges Bataille, plus I’ve always been a massive fan of Jean Genet, and he does this to a certain extent as well: what these writers do is they fold into their prose what you might call philosophy or self-reflective moments where the language that they use is being scrutinised, or the ability of the language they use to describe the thing that they’re grasping it is being scrutinised. So there’s this kind of linguistic uncertainty that I was attracted to and fascinated by.
And these writers use massive sexual content so I was interested in finding my own way of doing that. Obviously there are elements of that in London Triptych but it’s more structured around a narrative, whereas Twenty-Six is free-floating episodes with an anonymous narrator. The experience of reading it is much more concentrated, I think, as you go from one sexual episode to another, or from one philosophical affection to another, rather than having moments where there are characters doing things that draw the plot forward. There’s no plot to draw forward here.
The subject is sex and language. You write as if there’s a conflict between them, it’s as if one cannot contain the other. I think it’s a difficult concept to grasp, and a difficult one to tease out. How do you talk about something that defies language when using that language at one and the same time?
Obviously when it comes to talking about, or writing about, sex the tradition is pornography. And pornography is hugely dull, I think, a lot of the time, because it relies on the quick arousal and nothing should get in the way of that. I was much more interested in putting things in the way of that, of playing around with the quick arousal, and also trying to find a different language to talk about body parts and sexual acts. Pornography is rather clichéd in that respect. So this idea of the interplay of language and sex became a dance between body parts and sexual acts and the language used to describe them, that language always being subconsciously aware of its own inability to adequately describe what is trying to be described.
I was reading through Twenty-Six and trying to find that one line that would sum up this idea, and I found this from X. “Language makes the soul possible, yet every statement we make is a betrayal.”
That idea is from Jacques Derrida. Because language is a choice, a selection of words to describe whatever it is you’re describing, whether it be sex, or a dream we have. In my writing classes I often talk about the subject of dreams. It’s a good example of what I’m trying to do in this book. In fact there are many dreams in the book. It is a book of dreams.
When you try and describe a dream it betrays the reality of the dream, because the words that you choose fix it, but the dream itself is unfixable. So in terms of sex, there are many ways to describe it, whether comically or erotically, and each version betrays the truth of what happened. Every time we say something we’re betraying what we’re trying to articulate.
Do you think that theorising about sex like this helps to circumvent the psychological dangers of sex, by which I mean the dangers that are instilled into us by society, by religion: that voice in your head that says its wrong. Do you think the process of fixing sex into a larger framework is a bulwark to that voice?
I think it could be, yeah.
I think one of the things that was important for me in writing this book was not to judge sexual activity that is represented or described. I think also in terms of me personally I had to overcome a certain reticence in writing these things and also in publishing the book, because however much it might be autobiographical or however much it might be fictional, people read it in a simplistic way, thinking these things correspond to one’s life. That’s not always the case. There are experiences in here I’ve had, some I’ve made up, and some that others have told me about. That crazy process is not simply taking events from one’s life and putting them into language. Again that would be a betrayal.
The sex is quite casual and impersonal throughout. It’s personal to the writer but impersonal as an experience. Why did you choose to go on just that route?
I don’t think it’s just that route. There is more variety in the book. There are moments of intense love. And the memory of lost love.
There’s one piece, it’s about a dream where an ex-lover appears naked in a record shop. A female friend of mine appropriated that for herself, even though the piece is about a man dreaming about a lost male lover. But she responded to it so emotionally that she typed it out, changing the he to she, and texted it to her ex-lovers. I love that idea that it is translatable to someone else’s emotion and experience.
There is intimacy and there is love in there but there’s also the way in which we avoid intimacy or, to avoid feeling a lost love, we’ll throw ourselves into impersonal sexual encounters as an antidote to the loss and as a refusal to be intimate. At the same time also I’m also reminded of Jean Genet’s comment that he was always in love with the people he had sex with, if only for the duration of the sex. I think there can be romanticism to the most random anonymous encounter. Hopefully!
What is the next book about?
The next is a massive departure from the first two in that it’s not about gay sex at all.
The narrator is a 65-year-old woman who lives on a narrow boat in Little Venice in London with her second husband. One day she spies a young man who is the spitting image of her first husband, who died 40 years previously. She keeps on seeing him around. She’s not sure if she’s being haunted, or if she’s gong mad. It’s so uncanny it’s like seeing him in front of her, yet he hasn’t aged in 40 years.
So she has a bit of a breakdown, and she she tries to explain it to her second husband. He walks out and so she’s left on this barge on her own. She starts to recall her first husband, and the life they had together. He was the love of her life, even though after they were married he revealed himself to be a violent alcoholic. They had 3 children together. He was in the Royal Air Force and posted to Malayasia in 1967 when she was pregnant with her third child She stays in England then she travels with the children to join him after the baby is born. When she arrives she’s told he’s gone missing in a training accident at sea. There is the possibility that he didn’t die because there is no body.
So she starts to become obsessed with this young man. She starts to seek him out, believing he’s at the root of this mystery. She becomes besotted with this man, who is gay, and so there is a gay element to the book. It’s called Hannah Rose. And that’s as much as I’m going to say.