Respectability and Degradation
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Sam Thompson’s Jott
What is Jott, exactly? It’s the title of the new novel by Sam Thompson, of course, but it’s also the title of a novel within the novel and an all-purpose allusion to the spirit of “the Beckettian”: the double consonants at the end of the word call to mind some of Samuel Beckett’s best-known characters — Hamm, Krapp — and the whole word is an echo of the names of both Watt, from Watt (1953), and his demanding employer Mr. Knott. Open the novel and you’ll find Beckett there between the covers, too. The narrative, set in the 1930s, depicts the fraught friendship between two young men, a psychiatrist named Arthur Bourne and a writer, Louis Molyneux, both of whom are based on real people. Arthur is a version of the author’s grandfather, Geoffrey Thompson. Louis is a twentysomething version of the aspiring writer whom Geoffrey befriended at Trinity College, Dublin: the pessimistic scribbler destined to become a recipient of the Nobel Prize.
Thompson is perhaps best-known for his début novel Communion Town (2012), which scored a place on the Man Booker Prize longlist several years ago. True to its subtitle, A City in Ten Chapters, Communion Town pieces together a disjointed panorama of a sinister, shapeshifting metropolis. It is a playful, purposefully unstable work of fiction, stylistically dextrous and capable of both blending and shifting genres in a single paragraph. It is also conceptually bold: in a key sequence, for instance, a character describes his efforts to assemble a “memory palace” which eventually takes on the details and dimensions of the entire city, and then spills over into reality and colonises the city itself. By comparison, Jott is more reserved, less manic; more self-composed, less anxious to keep the wheels spinning and maintain momentum at all costs. In an unusual way, its placid surface conceals its more impressive technical sophistication — a sophistication that originates from a source more subtle than the mercurial prose and plotting of its predecessor.
To be clear: despite the connotations of its title, Jott is not a novel “about” Samuel Beckett, nor is it even really about a fictionalised stand-in. It only glances Beckett from an oblique angle, through the character of Louis, and Louis is himself observed obliquely, through Arthur. Arthur’s perspective dominates the narrative, and for a lengthy stretch of the story Louis is not a presence in Arthur’s life at all. To the extent that the novel is about Louis/Beckett, it depicts a compressed version of the years between the compilation of the stories in Beckett’s More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), now refigured as a volume entitled Sham Abraham, and the completion of the novel Murphy (1938), which here wears the veil of Louis’ Jott. The twelve stories in Sham Abraham, we are told,
each represent[ed] a separate episode in the life of a person called Leary, a university man with no visible means of subsistence who spent his time wandering around Dublin having encounters with various grotesques. The characters had names like Jenny Phlegm, Constable Gusto, Mickey Swollen, Father Phuckett, Professor Cockley, Malachy Febrile. In the first story Leary was bullied by his landlady, Mrs Mudd, into moving from a small, windowless room where he had been happy into a larger, well-appointed room where he was miserable; in the second he talked himself into a beating from some hearties on Pearse Street; in the third, he witnessed the leap of a would-be suicide from the O’Connell Bridge.
And Thompson even treats us to a sample of Louis’ Beckettian prose: “Good morrow to the day, thus Leary, recumbent resupine on the public bench by the gentlemen’s convenience on College Green, and next, my gold: in media res yes but whither hence I know not…” But Louis’ narrative arc, his development from wishful man of letters to published novelist, is circumscribed by Arthur’s story: the story of a psychiatrist coming to grips with psychoanalysis and coming to terms with what his practice reveals to him about himself.
Jott, then, is really a novel whose various elements — the characters and their situations, as well as styles of thought and expression — are assembled in an array of delicate equipoises and counterpositions. At its heart is the dynamic of antagonism and conciliation between two oppositional personalities. Arthur is a buttoned-down young man so polite and cerebral, so emotionally distant and contained, that he remains ashamed of himself for the secret he harbours: he is “two months from his thirtieth birthday” and he has never had “a sexual experience”. Louis, conversely, is puerile and lascivious, deflationary and iconoclastic, a provocateur “burning with conviction to the fingertips, living by a hunger that would not be satisfied, incapable of doing a dull or conventional thing”.
But rather than simply using Arthur and Louis to strike sparks off one another, or assigning them the rote positions of protagonist and antagonist, Thompson does something different. He allows each of these men to absorb the driving energies of the other, and then he has them carry those energies into the world, in an effort to counter the currents of adversarial circumstances. Louis is a born miser: “It’s far beyond perfection by now,” he says of Sham Abraham. “I can’t be held responsible for the effects it may have either on the unsuspecting future reader or on the future course of literary history. … I’d rather thread my tenderest part through the typewriter than spend another instant working on the wretched thing.” Arthur is a born killjoy: his idea of a good time involves fantasising about receiving public regard for publishing a clinical paper, ‘A Successful Treatment by Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in a Case of Dementia Praecox’, which, in any event, remains unwritten. How is it that Louis musters up the wherewithal to continue writing, to commit himself to bringing Jott into existence, even after Sham Abraham has been turned down by an editor who claimed to be interested in it? What little persistence he possesses, he derives from Arthur’s entreaties that he cannot simply quit, he must persevere, he must — in Beckett’s words — “go on”. How is it that Arthur suppresses his virginal shame and commits to a woman, Sarah, in whose company he allows himself some intimacy? He takes his cues from Louis, a shameless womaniser, as is clear from a scene in which he draws close to Sarah by summoning up some of Louis’ bravado, albeit to such an extent that Louis’ pessimism punctures the romance. “Arthur grabbed Sarah’s hand again”, writes Thompson, “and pushed through a screen of willow leaves. He pulled her on to a bench and brought her face close to his.” And then? “Their noses and teeth bumped; their mouths kept meeting at the wrong angle. Her hands were chapped. The air was cold and smelled faintly of dog shit.”
The novel is riven with such counterpositionings that evolve into reciprocal exchanges of sentiments. Similar dynamics exist between Arthur’s mentor Myles and a man named Walker, a particularly disturbed and inaccessible patient in an infirmary, with Arthur acting as a sort of interlocutor for transferences of meaning between the two. They also exist in a multidirectional way between Arthur and Myles, Arthur and Walker, Louis and Myles, and Louis and Walker, and between the decrepit women who populate Louis’ literary narratives and the one woman, Sarah, around whom Arthur pivots the narrative of his life. And they seep out from the characters into the style of the novel, into the variegations of its prose. As above, when Louis speaks and writes, he reveals himself as a man with an eye so jaundiced that he’d find putrescence even in paradise, whereas Arthur wants nothing of Louis’ dourness and prefers a simplicity that verges on sterility. Sentence by sentence, Thompson’s prose finds a way of accommodating the tendencies of both characters at the same time.
Take, for instance, a scene in which Sarah decides to renovate an office that has fallen into disrepair. When Arthur surveys the room he notices “walls blistered with damp and marked by several blotches of mould”, and “[l]oops of cobweb trail[ing] from the ceiling”. But even when Sarah’s work is complete, when electricity has been restored and the office has been illuminated, the prose finds a way of tinging Arthur’s observations with the pessimistic chill of the absent Louis: “the room was lit bit a naked bulb that picked out a lunar map across the ceiling’s plasterwork”. Elsewhere, the sun on an overcast day is described as “a cyst of light… draining from the cloud cover”, and later, when Arthur is overcome by a burst of emotion, a single sentence begins with his fondness for simplicity, for tactility, then twists around to end on a note that speaks to Louis’ apocalypticism: “The sense of something buckling made him think that the banister had given way under his hand, but it was only his face that was crumpling out of shape, only an imaginary structure inside his chest that was collapsing.” The result: hyperspecific descriptions of physical spaces that veer between respectability and degradation, augmented by imaginative metaphors and eloquent turns of phrase that exacerbate, rather than relieve, an atmosphere of imminent cataclysm. If not a novel “about” Samuel Beckett, nor a novel that consistently apes his style, Jott certainly sustains a tone informed by the quintessential mood of “the Beckettian”.
Recently, we’ve seen a minor spate of novels that fictionalise the writers and artists of the interwar years. Notable entries include Amelia Gray’s Isadora (2017), about the dancer Isadora Duncan, and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree (2016), which also fictionalises Beckett and places him front and centre. Best of the lot is Alex Pheby’s Lucia (2018), a fictional take on the life of James Joyce’s daughter, with whom Beckett briefly had a relationship. While Jott does not have the same impressive scope as Lucia, nor the same wild approach to exploring the possibilities of literary form, Thompson does share Pheby’s seriousness in posing questions about the practice of fictionalising real people who cannot speak back to the writer. Like Lucia, Jott at once engages in this practice and makes space for considering its justifications, its ethics, and its complications, especially when it is applied to people who suffered from mental illness of an extreme or debilitating variety.
Most impressively, Thompson also shares Pheby’s stamina in resisting the temptation to resolve the questions he raises in Jott, to bring its considerations to anything like a conclusion. Readers of the novel won’t really learn anything about Samuel Beckett or even Geoffrey Thompson, nor about the gains made by fictionalising their friendship rather than detailing it in a more straightforward work of biography or literary history. As Beckett himself suggested with the famous final lines of Molloy (1951), literature, by its nature, dances across the fissure between the world as we know it and the words on the page, and there is boldness in it to the extent that it does not efface or bridge the gap but proceeds in spite of the risk of a fall, or in brazen defiance of it. Jott is a novel written very much in the spirit of this suggestion, true to the vocations of not both of the men at its source.