Alexander Trocchi: “Cosmopolitan Scum”

Young Adam

When Glaswegian writer Alexander Trocchi appeared at the Edinburgh Writers Festival in 1962, his reputation preceded him. Disreputable, dissolute, addicted to heroin, fugitive from the law, a confirmed libertine and author of books with description of sex, violence and drug abuse, Trocchi was marked as a subversive and potentially dangerous figure. When Trocchi appeared to talk on a panel, he became involved in a verbal altercation with Scots nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who called him “cosmopolitan scum”. Trocchi took great pride in the insult.

For Scots authors of gritty fiction, such as James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, Trocchi is a point of origin. Tough, unsparing, tautly written, unsentimental, identifiably Scots but tempered by French existentialism and Beckett’s interiority, Trocchi’s books are a touchstone for ambitious Scottish writers of later generations. The international acclaim afforded Trocchi was a badge of approval from the cognoscenti. As an individual, Trocchi’s extreme lifestyle – including drug taking, drug dealing, facing the death penalty, flight from US legal jurisdiction and pimping out his own wife to feed the couple’s heroin addictions – is full of palpable authenticity. By turns pathologically selfish, pitifully squalid and creatively barren, Trocchi’s life and long writer’s block act as a warning to creative artists those who are tempted to dabble in depravity. At his death in 1984, there was little unpublished material in his estate.

One can read all of Trocchi’s serious fiction over a long afternoon, if one is minded to. If one excludes eight erotic pulp novels, written to make money, the entirety of Trocchi’s prose fiction comprises Young Adam (1954), Cain’s Book (1960) and The Holy Man and Other Stories (1965), the latter of which consists of four stories. Man at Leisure (1972) is a collection of verse and completes the quartet of Trocchi’s substantial output published by Calder Publications, now owned by Alma Books.

Trocchi is generally grouped with the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs in his early hard-bitten documentary period, but John Calder comments that Trocchi actually belongs to “the “damned” French writers, from Baudelaire and Rimbaud to Céline and Genet. One could almost also mention Cocteau, who was responsible for introducing him to heroin, the cause of [Trocchi’s] eventual downfall and death.” Trocchi was also an active member of the Situationist movement.

Young Adam is a quasi-crime mystery novel. Our narrator recounts his collection of a woman’s body from a canal, coloured by indifference, where his responses to his breakfast are as stronger than his reaction to handling of a dead body. A observes a naked leg hang from below the blanket as the body is carried on a stretcher, looking like “a parsnip”. A boy watches the scene while eating an apple. The novel is situated in a world that has remained almost unchanged since Victorian times – low wages, simple meals, manual labour, newspapers read in pub saloons, no presence of radio and television – with hardly a glimpse of the post-war world of the time. We are immersed in the narrator’s ennui and his detachment. His only strong motivation is to seduce his colleague’s wife. We find out the narrator’s connection to the dead woman and watch his reactions as the story of the consequences of her death is played out. The blend of indifference and intimacy is affecting. The narrator’s pathologically cold and selfish psychology is mapped out indirectly through his observations of his reactions to events, from which he seems detached.

CAIN'S BOOK

Cain’s Book is about a scowman working the waters of New York. The narrator works maintaining and piloting a scow (a barge used in inland waters to transport cargo), filling in time between fixes. He is a junky who also uses marijuana. He is also writing a novel. We meet his fellow scowmen and scowwomen, individuals whose company he seeks out or avoids. His writing seems no more or less engaging than the reading he does or the conversations he has. He is unthreateningly unambitious, drifting in the moment, occasionally recalling events from his past and his failed marriage. Fragments of the narrator’s past in Scotland and his sojourns to Greenwich Village intersperse his waiting moored in the river off Manhattan. It is worth comparing the book to Trawl (1966) by B.S. Johnson. In that book, the narrator is a writer seeking material by taking passage on a fishing vessel. We are immersed in his internal monologue and preoccupation with his romantic failures and the privations of confined living and seasickness. In Trawl the subject of a writer is a very self-conscious preoccupation and plot point. In Cain’s Book, the writing is incidental and one could imagine the book without that aspect not being thematically different from the book Trocchi wrote. Trocchi writes perceptively about addiction, but it is not a core of the novel, being no more than a single factor in the narrator’s guiding conditions.

Junkies in New York are often desperate. To be a junkie is to live in a madhouse. Laws, police forces, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority which ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto. There was never a wandering Jew who wandered further than a junkie, without hope. Always moving. Eventually one must go where the junk is and one is never certain where the junk is, never sure that where the junk is is not the anteroom of the penitentiary.

There are other novels which bear comparison with Trocchi’s. Beckett’s internal monologues of isolated individuals (which Trocchi uses as an epigraph of Malone Dies (1951) in Cain’s Book) and the stripped nouveau romans of the period both parallel Trocchi’s novels. Another book from the preceding era which also relates is Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941). It is a crime novel which follows the struggles and deterioration of George Bone, as a wrestles with the unreciprocated desire for Netta Longdon, a bit-part actress. Netta exploits her looks, drifting in a dissolute lifestyle of sleeping, drinking, fancy restaurant meals and borrowed money, cultivating a façade of indifference. In the end, Bone murders Netta and her lover, then takes his own life. The isolation of the main characters of Hangover Square – socially and familially disconnected, emotionally and financially atomised – who seem to have few ties or duties and are immersed in a demi-monde centred on immediate gratification and calculated cynicism are not dissimilar to Trocchi’s dissociated protagonists. The undeclared and unspoken part-time prostitution of the women is another thread connecting Hamilton and Trocchi. While the prose style is leaner in Trocchi’s novels, the internal monologues, character behaviour and ambience are close. Both Hangover Square and Cain’s Book include quotes as –somewhat elliptical – chapter introductions.

The Holy Man

The Holy Man and Other Stories collects four short stories. “A Being of Distances”, a description of a family funeral, reuses material that is in Cain’s Book. “The Holy Man” is about the outcast inhabitants of a tenement building in Paris. It shows a debt to Beckett in terms of tone. “To live, to grow old and to die: the process excited little interest.” He downplays the comic and anecdotal potential and instead emphasises the existential aspect of a holy man living in squalor in an attic. “Peter Pierce” concerns a man going into business with a disfigured ragman. “A Meeting” is a description of a clerk’s afternoon’s work in a small office and his conversation with a secretary. As a story, this is the most engaging and subtle story in The Holy Man – apparently the entirety of Trocchi’s short fiction.

Man at Leisure

Man at Leisure is a collection of poems, with a foreword by publisher John Calder and introduction by William Burroughs. Calder recounts that he had to illegally enter Trocchi’s residence to take possession of the manuscript, for which Trocchi had signed a contract but had repeatedly delayed to deliver.  The manuscript was not thoroughly revised by the poet. The 49 poems date from the writer’s time in Glasgow in 1951, through his wide-ranging travels in Europe and time in New York, up to his residence in London in 1972; they range widely in style. Burroughs correctly discerns the influence of John Donne’s Metaphysical poetry in some of Trocchi’s verse. Myrtle with the Light Blue Hair: “[…] what she / showed the toad, & not coy… / the slicks, flats, elastic tensions / of her great, her imperial thighs, the torque of her hot delta […]”It is striking how many times “thighs”, “belly”, “loins” and “sperm” appear in the poems – a debt to Marvell and Donne, as well as the pulp erotica of Trocchi’s era. At other times we get the jibber-jabber wild listings and political mottos of a Ginsberg: “[…] foreign policy implies / apes showing teeth / black ape-teeth / white ape-teeth / brown ape-teeth / yalar ape-teeth / gritting their prongs / all ape / all them aliens / sounding their gongs”.

Some poems are rather slight, hardly more than occasional pieces, and very short. The flippancy and flimsiness of some of the poems is not balanced by wit, insight or skill. However, that is not to suggest that Trocchi was a poor poet, just a poet who tried only sporadically and achieved uneven results. The most ambitious poem is “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters”, a sweeping description of the West and East, is delicately descriptive and carefully worked but still with energy and originality. In it, Trocchi expounds the common counter-culture view that the West is rational and male, enervated and played out (“The west is boudoirs and actresses / and a dwindling aristocracy”); the East is intuitive and female, fecund, unknowable and vital (“The east is a dark uterus, / darker than the waters of the Nile or the Euphrates. / she is female & her spawn / is a seeping alluvial silt […]”). It reiterates the tropes of Orientalism and anti-capitalism in terms of the human sexes. Regardless of what one thinks of the politics, it is an effective and powerful poem. Sadly, little else rises to that standard in Trocchi’s poetic output. “How at Thebes Tiresias, the Prophet, Told…” is Trocchi’s effort at recasting Eliot’s “The Waste Land”, complete with mixture of ancient myth and modern life, anachronistic parody, multilingual interjections and multi-part format. It is the longest poem here but still unfinished. One cannot help thinking that Trocchi was rambling, enjoying the writing but directionless. Verse allowed Trocchi to detach himself too much from argument, description and unambiguous meaning and to attach himself too much to undirected asides, free association and the minor pleasure of word play.  Trocchi’s gifts of description and insight shine forth in prose.

 

Alexander Trocchi, Young Adam, 2018, Calder Publications, paperback, 139pp + xiii, £7.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4462 5

Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book, 2017, Calder Publications, paperback, 212pp + xx, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4460 1

Alexander Trocchi, The Holy Man and Other Stories, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 115pp, £8.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4847 0

Alexander Trocchi, Man at Leisure, 2019, Calder Publications, paperback, 85pp + viii, £10.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 4944 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

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Basquiat versus Banksy

“On the eve of the opening of a new exhibition of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat in London, Banksy revealed two painted homages to his American predecessor. The contrast between the most famous exponents of two different generations of street art from opposite sides of the Atlantic could not be greater.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) is widely considered the founder of the street art movement, which is the crossover of, on one side, graffiti art, mural painting and inscribed poetry and, on the other, the fine arts of museums and galleries. In theory, street art could be simply graffiti or posters from non-gallery settings relocated into museums and galleries, but in practice this is rarely the case. More often, creators who began by making graffiti start working on more portable supports (like the traditional artist’s canvas or board) when there is a commercial imperative. They also make prints or multiples with professional assistants.

“‘Basquiat: Boom for Real’ (Barbican Art Gallery, London; closes 28 January) collects a wide range of Basquiat’s art made over the whole of his short career. Visitors can judge for themselves Basquiat’s stellar status in the art world. (This year a painting by him sold at auction for $110million.) The art was made in a mixture of fine-art materials and ordinary materials from drugstores and discount stores. Paint, oil sticks, spraypaint, pencil and marker were used on canvas and board but also on more unusual supports such as foam rubber, doors, plates, a refrigerator and even a football helmet. Subjects include street life, modern life, racism, sports, music, popular culture, ancient history, the Western canon, anatomy and mortality. All manner of seemingly random fragments of history surface in Basquiat’s paintings. Simple icons, lists of words, graphic symbols, colourful abstract painting and meandering grids occupy a variety of surfaces…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 2 October 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/basquiat-versus-banksy/20383#.WdJ0X1uPLIU

Lost in New York

“New York City, home to great collections of art, is never short of key works by important artists to measure against one another. Autumn 2011, three displays have coincided to allow people to compare the skills of a modern master with those of a predecessor who influenced him. Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) revered J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) for both his devotion to the human figure and technical skill (in drawing especially). De Kooning vowed he would never paint a tree and his art never strayed too far from the portrait or nude, even at its most abstracted. Likewise, Ingres never manifested much interest in landscape and still-life either. Both painters were noted by peers as being consummate painters of flesh, principally female.

“MoMA claim that De Kooning: A Retrospective (until 9 January) is the “first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Willem de Kooning”. As the current survey includes work from 1983-7 not included in a much larger 1983 retrospective shown in Berlin and New York (the current show has 195 works, the earlier one had 280) the press release is technically accurate while being a touch grandiloquent.

“Filling the sixth floor of the new MoMA building for the first time, the retrospective provides some surprises and confirms some expectations…”

Read the full review at THE JACKDAW, November 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=83