Tom Harris and Stefan Themerson

My most recent read is Tom Harris by Stefan Themerson (1967), one of Dalkey Archive’s most recent reissues. I was attracted by an ad in the last Review of Contemporary Fiction which describes it as “an outlandish, highly unconventional detective story.” That is a fairly good way of summing up the novel.

It is a lively, thoughtful novel filled with unusual (but not too unusual) characters that reminded me rather much of Queneau (without the wordplay). The main focus of the novel revolves around truth, appearances, beauty, and ethics. Not the least indication of these foci is the narrator. Have read the novel once and then went back and read parts of the beginning again, I am fairly certain that the narrator is never named. In fact, though the narrator is narrating events of his own witness and activity through the first half of the novel, he is never named, given an occupation, nor even a real relation to Tom Harris, the character who is the protagonist here (or is he?).

Plotwise the novel walks around the story of Tom Harris. It starts conventionally enough in London where the narrator is trailing two detectives who are trailing Tom Harris, just released from police questioning on suspicion of murdering his former employer. That murder is one of many mysteries that is never clearly resolved. After a chapter, the novel jumps forward twenty-five years to the early 60’s. The narrator, travelling in Italy and after a number of coincidences, becomes again embroiled in Tom Harris’ story. Though halfway through those events are resolved, the narrator is left with three notebooks of Tom’s, which he reads but then sends back. The second half of the novel consists of three attempts (two short, one quite substantial) of the narrator trying to reconstruct the notebooks in (re)written form.

Half the novel, though written in the first person pronoun is actually filtered through the unnamed narrator. By the end of the novel we are right back to the beginning with Tom followed by the detectives followed by the narrator. This circularity is another place where Queneau seems influential (Le Chiendent has a very similar beginning/ending circularity involving one character observing another). Besides Queneau, the novel also reminded me very much of Paul Auster (though obviously Auster is post-Themerson) with it’s multitude of coincidences, detective ambiance, and the set-up of one friend trying to figure out another (The Locked Room and Leviathan come to mind).

The narrator as he tries to reconstruct Tom’s life, early on admits the futility of the classic empirical detective approach:

“I realized how futile my empirical efforts were bound to be. I couldn’t see things as he had, the same beer must have tasted different in his mouth, the same four corners of his room must have looked different to him…” (148)

“…on the whole it seemed to me that we don’t do things on account of something or other, but we just do them and look for a reason afterwards, and there are always many reasons to choose from, so we pick one up…” (177)

He puts his reconstruction into doubt, yet, in the end, we never have more than the narrator’s story to believe. A number of other reviewers or commentators says that the novel is about Tom Harris’s identity, but in the end, the real mystery belongs to the narrator.

I’d never previously heard of Themerson, so I did a little searching around and found little (my blog, simple because it was listed as my current read, was in the top 10 google hits for the novel):

Nicholas Wadley’s “Reading Stefan Themerson” from Context 16 which also appears as the introduction to the novel, but oddly and unfortunately says nothing about the novel itself.

The Themerson Archive which has some information on Themerson and his wife (an artist), including their press Gaberbocchus Press, which published the first English translation of Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Queneau. The Ubu Roi was later available from New Directions in a facsimile and is quite amusing (I found a copy years ago at a used bookstore) as it is hand lettered by Barbara Wright the translator and there are drawings on the page and over the text by Franciszka Themerson.

From David Ian Paddy’s review of Exact Change’s release of Bayamus & Cardinal Polatuo: Two Novels (Review of Contemporary Fiction 19.3 (Fall 1999): 159):

“In Bayamus the narrator follows a man with three legs to the Theatre of Anatomy and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry. The latter is the novel’s true destination, where its real concern is explored. Semantic poets insist on clear thinking and the need to free poetic words of vague and multiple associations. To do this the poet must replace each questionable word with the more precise phrasing of a dictionary definition. This method of substitution feels notably Oulipian, and, fittingly enough, Themerson’s semantic rendition of “Taffy was a Welshman” has been included in Mathews and Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium.”

Somehow it always comes back to the Oulipo even when I don’t mean it to!