• Writing Ugly: Kirsty Gunn on Novelist Rosalind Belben’s Unappealing Appeal

    “This writer wants to show us that the ugly side of life is life’s necessary hemisphere.”

    Most of us who enjoy books are largely agreed upon concepts like “good writing” and “clarity and confidence of expression” being fundamental to our delight in the play of words upon a page. We are brought up to learn that conveying our thoughts in “good English” is part of our education in that language, and lines like “well phrased” and “nicely constructed sentences” are generally written in the margins of essays and exam papers by teachers who want to praise students for their work.

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    But to what extent is content conflated with form when we go on about literature this way? To what degree is some unconscious idea of a common moral benefit bundled up into all that well wrought syntax? That good writing, in the end, is about… well, good things?

    Belben is a writer who actively enjoys taking on the murky and the embarrassing, the linguistically obtuse and the unpleasant.

    I’ve been wondering about all this following the recent re-publication of Rosalind Belben’s novel The Limit, the story of an older woman who is now dying, a rack of bones and bald head and dry skin, while the younger man to whom she is married remains tanned and warm and virile. Belben is a novelist who writes beautifully—very “well” indeed—about quite a lot of rather tricky things. Tricky as in—on occasion, hard to stomach. Tricky as in—can be—pretty awful.

    Going back to her work after reading The Limit, a book first published in 1974 and now available as an NYRB title, reminds me that Belben is a writer who actively enjoys taking on the murky and the embarrassing, the linguistically obtuse and the unpleasant to the extent of defecatory… There’s no shortage of ugly content in this writer’s body of meticulously crafted and imagined fiction. Since I was first introduced to her books about twelve years ago I’ve been ravished by a literary project that overwhelms the reader with a particularly anti-social kind of difficulty—whether of subject or style—that results in an unusual dilemma. To love or to loathe?

    For Belben’s sentences, like some of that content of hers, are equally difficult to manage. She uses allusion and metaphor in a way that can seem private and deliberately exclusive: Who is seeing what, when? Where are we? Is this written from the first person, or the third? We’re kept at arm’s length while at the same time being brought right inside the action, made unavoidably close.

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    “The novel should fall apart,” writes the avant garde writer and poet Paul Griffiths in his introduction to this new publication. “The syntax is everywhere abrupt. Narrative time is at once stopped…and exploded.” It’s as though Belben has developed a kind of in medias res that is all her own—abruptly entering into a scene or situation in a complex and idiosyncratic way—“he holds the dry hair;” “Wind high, blue and white the sky, there would be no suspicion of it,” “a definition of rapture”—that can’t be easily associated with what follows. Not only do we have to catch on fast when we’re reading this writer’s prose, we have to hold on for dear life when we do so.

    “… isolating one moment, one person, from the end beginning, at the beginning, finding no end” is how The Limit starts and if we don’t take in from the outset the easy shifting of backstory into dramatic present, the role of writer in relation to her characters, the quick melt of reportage into monologue—“The wedding night, the marital bed. The beginning before the end. Our honeymoon we spent in England” one chapter opens—adjusting in second by second time our reading eye and ear, the gist of the story will fail to register. And how exciting it is! To have to keep our wits about us this way!

    Griffiths describes Belben’s approach as prose that “falls—hurtles—together with a clang of rightness and necessity”—we have to jump onto this machine of words of hers and be quick about it. The Limit is composed in a series of scenes that shift and flick between time frames, a changing roster of chapter headings that split the story apart and create a series of Medieval style tableaux—they have titles like “A Cause or Occasion of Keen Distress or Sorrow” and “The Passage of the Soul at Death into Another Body.”

    Belben shuffles these about and lays them down like a deck of cards. A flirtation at the Captain’s Table, when the two protagonists of the novel, husband and wife, meet each other for the first time comes hard on the heels of a memory from childhood of a beaten dog who is then shot dead in the stables. Ilario, Anna’s husband is, at the end of one chapter, musing tenderly upon his wife, and at the beginning of the next remembering her squatting on the toilet like an ape. What next? What now?

    I think Belben may be the first contemporary writer in English since Muriel Spark I’ve come across who makes a virtue of being contrary for the sake of it—in Belben’s case, not wanting to be “good” in the sense of either creating smoothly comprehensible sentences in English nor making the subjects of her books necessarily appealing or easy for the reader to feel empathy. Belben, like Spark before her—and more so—has no intention of setting and holding to any but her own rules and she writes about stuff that can be awful and brutal and shocking in the most jaunty, beautifully put together way.

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    The first novel of hers I read was Hound Music, a story of a family mired deep in the English countryside by their love of animals and the hunting of and with them. The thing rushed me on with the energy of a pack of baying dogs before I had even got my head around the fact that this was a story in which the action had actually been cauterized by the setting of an emotional temperature so low that it killed off the possibility for any normal human intimacy and relations for the characters within it.

    It wasn’t exactly awful, Belben’s account of a certain sort love for animals that seemed to discount real and complicated human interaction, but it was very unsettling, and then it became very sad. That “music” of the title was all. To so feel a rumpus of pets and animal loyalty playing havoc with our responses to and lack of interest in the family who owned them was to witness the sure death of a much loved very British sort of story—posh people with heart living eccentrically in the Home Counties in big houses. It was as though the novel had flung the idea of an English countryside story flat into the mud and let it go to the dogs, a spectacularly imaginative kind of prose prepared, dressed and executed upon the page as though it were a poem.

    The Limit is a very different kind of undertaking. The account of Anna, a woman who I realize with horror is not that much older than I am, who is giving up the last bits of herself to the tests of her own curiosity, letting herself become a corpse—“this legless lady ancient…Presently she will go purple”—is harrowing to the extreme.

    Here is no change of register or tone that might give some light relief; none of Hound Music’s brutally jolly sangfroid or the wry self-deprecation that can sound almost a cheery note in some of Belben’s other novels. No. This is a work I really have not wanted to dive into at all. It’s been revolting to have been in the continual company of a stinking, dying body being tested and prodded—“from a pectoral cavity jealously hoarding its visceral secrets, a student filled a quart can enticing unspeakable liquid along size 10 knitting needles driven through the ribs”—detailed over and over again even for just the length of time it takes to read what is in effect a long short story.

    But for its construction—alternating between actions, “she scratches…Upon the shin her hand travelled, down each wedge of crepe bandage,” and reactions “Does she gnaw her fingers?” and keeping the reader brightly and happily on her toes with the shifting scenes and time frames, marveling at how much the writer can do and with so little—even the 101 pages of this novel would be too much to bear. In its explicit, relentless presentation of the decaying female Belben seems to be flirting with an intense kind of misogyny; when she writes of genitalia as “a female pox” or “a stinking infertility to stink and seep from the womb” I have to wonder at the motivation behind dishing up so much loathing for a woman’s body.

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    And not only is this objectifying of a woman into a mortal exemplar that is right up there with some of Chaucer’s more gruesome tales made present in Anna’s endless lists of sexual needs and frustrations—her desire for her husband indicated by her scrabbling hand and “Consume me, she weeps, my disease, my foul breath, my yellow tongue”—it is finished off, the stink of the putrefaction of sexual organs made complete, in an accumulation of fecal matter and mess. “Once you’ve read a Rosalind Belben novel you don’t forget it,” the writer and critic Gabriel Josipovici has said. Well. Hell, yeah.

    But that core quality—again, that trickiness, Belben’s unwillingness to appeal, in either her language or her sense, to the reader, or even cast a bone in her direction—is the very energy driving the work, and creating its consequence. This writer wants to show us that the ugly side of life is life’s necessary hemisphere and in so doing makes of other books that don’t want to admit it to the light only half worlds, unable to be whole. For Belben, the dreadful, the unforgettable, the raw, revolting are qualities that bring us to feel equally the marvel that is being alive. What’s more, the ugly she is writing makes us complicit in this experience of the darker side of life.

    For Belben, the dreadful, the unforgettable, the raw, revolting are qualities that bring us to feel equally the marvel that is being alive.

    Contemporary novels by women may seem to be tackling similarly yucky stuff—the protagonists in the work of writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, Halle Butler, and Sarah Manguso have some pretty nasty thoughts and experiences—but there’s a moral trajectory to these stories which keeps all the unpleasantness in order. We are being given directions here, in this kind of fiction, as to how to respond to it—we are meant to find the characters’ behaviors awful—and the prose itself, intent not so much on describing a feeling as telling us all about it, is clear and easy on the eye.

    A novel like Sheena Patel’s exhilarating I’m a Fan, which hounds its deeply dodgy stalker heroine with a narrative style that combines the interiority of text messages with the self-awareness of an Instagram post, presses harder at this question of whether we are inside or outside the experience of the text. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, which takes on the subject of ugliness as a theme when the protagonist’s best friend hosts an ugly painting competition, makes ideas of anti-social difficulty a talking point; in the novel, Shelia asks herself and her friends all the time about what’s ugly and what is not.

    In the end, such narratives keep the reader outside the action. They are about the people in them and not about who we find ourselves to be in relation to them. Belben’s work, by contrast, makes of the awful things that go on in her sentences and paragraphs part of our own experience; we don’t get to opt out and just look on. The sheer amount of work she makes us do to get inside her syntax and structure means that the stories become the reader’s property as much as the characters’. That ugly of theirs gets painted all over our own minds and we can’t shift it.

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    Ever since I’ve been reading this author’s fiction my response has been the same mighty mixture of awe and amazement: What ghastliness can’t she accomplish in fictional prose? A story about the queasy, queerly nourishing feeling of being poisoned in Daffodils, set alongside hectic representations of 12th-century manuscripts by Benedictine nuns? Done, in Is Beauty Good? A set of esoteric scenes that become a novel about frigidity and loneliness?

    Sorted—and finished off entirely with an electric toothbrush set to work as a dildo to the point of drawing blood in Dreaming of Dead People. Whether Belben is writing about horses press-ganged into brutal service for the First World War or the repellent peculiarities of a sickly child in Reuben, Little Hero her novels, are, quite simply, like nothing else.

    I have heard Belben has given up on the idea that she might find a decent cohort of enthusiasts and critics for her immaculately challenging body of work. She is in her eighties at this point, living in rural Dorset and far, far indeed from the madding crowd. William Gaddis, another reclusive writer, famously counted the sales for his massively weird and wonderful The Recognitions as “no more than fifty copies” being passed through the hands of a small number of loyal friends up and down the island of Manhattan.

    Belben might think of herself in Gaddis’ camp. “I don’t know how many readers she has but there have never been enough” says Gabriel Josipovici who first introduced me to her work by way of comforting me at a time when I realized that I, too, could not expect a whole lot of takers for my own fiction.

    Belben reminds me that despite its often-seeming limitations, the novel can be an exciting form of pleasure indeed; that being a novelist in the first place can be a compelling and riveting way to spend one’s time. Her books demonstrate that not all fiction has to appeal to that phantom creature “the common reader” in order to be valuable. Being unappealing—letting the ugly in to work its maleficence at the level of the sentence of a narrative… This has its own vast and life affirming reward.

    Kirsty Gunn
    Kirsty Gunn
    Kirsty Gunn's new collection of short stories, Pretty Ugly, is due out this summer.

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