A fatal case of Art

Joyce Cary, The horse’s mouth. First published August 1944, published by Penguin Books in 1948. My tatty 1964 reprint was bought second-hand for 50 cents somewhere along the way.

I have just finished reading The horse’s mouth by Joyce Cary, a book unjustly forgotten by a world that races into the hippityhoppity tiketty toketty future. The horse’s mouth embraces huge themes — Art, Life, Love, [In]Justice. It is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, with crackling language, mordant wit, and a relentlessly ironic narrative.

‘You are a good boy,’ I said, in spite of myself. ‘And so I’m telling you something for your own good. All art is bad, but modern art is the worst. Just like the influenza. The newer it is, the more dangerous. And modern art is not only a public danger — it’s insidious. You never know what may happen when it’s got loose…’

This is advice from the horse’s mouth, that is, from Gulley Jimson, a modern artist of unique genius/stupidity who is held back from fame and fortune by the fatal combination of his own human weakness and the pusillanimity of a society that needs but does not really value Art. Or rather: a society that readily prices Art but values not the Artist.

Here am I, I said, Gulley Jimson, whose pictures have been bought by the nation, or sold at Christie’s by millionaires for hundreds of pounds, pictures which were practically stolen from me, and I haven’t a brush or a tube of colour. Not to speak of a meal or a pair of good boots. I am simply forbidden to work. It’s enough to make an undertaker smile.

But then, I said again, as I walked up and down Ellam Street, to keep warm, I mustn’t get up a grievance. Plays the deuce, I must keep calm. For the fact is, it’s wise to be wise, especially for a born fool. I mustn’t exaggerate. The nation has only got one of my pictures which was left it by will and which quite likely it didn’t want; and only one millionaire has ever bought my stuff. Also he took a big risk of losing his money. Also he is probably far from being a millionaire. So I have no reason to feel aggrieved and ought in fact to thank God I haven’t got corns and bunions.

Gulley is alcoholic, duplicitous, amorous but unfaithful, true only to his vocation but wildly impractical in his creative efforts. He has lovers, followers and patrons whom he treats with ambivalence at best and contempt at worst. He ultimately kills the woman he painted in his most celebrated work — a deed which (like many of his artistic actions) goes way beyond his intentions. He dies soon after this fatal error in a quixotic attempt to complete his magnum opus, a wall painting of the Creation that he elects to paint in a condemned church that he knows is unsafe and about to be demolished.

Madness indeed, yet the world of Gulley Jimson is such that we cannot blame him for his failures. He is more sinned against than sinning. Government is stultifying, the upper classes are enveloped in comfortable privilege, the rest of humanity is condemned to struggle and suffer throughout life. For the ordinary man or woman (especially woman) hope is simply an instrument of torture, designed to keep one’s feet to the fire a little longer.

For Jimson, Art is ambivalently a disease that afflicts and a purpose that transcends. He is fond of quoting William Blake, the archetypal outsider-artist, and discussing Baruch Spinoza, the radical philosopher who did so much to challenge conventional religious pieties. The intertextuality this brings into The horse’s mouth opens rabbit holes that I am not equipped to enter, but they are there for the intrepid and curious to explore.

Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.
Baruch Spinoza. Ethics, Part IV, Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions. Translated by R H M Elwes https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ethics_(Spinoza) [This sentence could be the epigraph for The horse’s mouth, as it describes the Jimson dance perfectly.]

So: a terrific book, first published in 1944, and specific to the London of the time — a dirty, class-ridden, coal-dusty, brick tenemented, woollen waistcoated, cloth-capped London of shrinking possibilities. London has changed since then, but it is again a city of shrinking possibilities in a world of declining hopes, and I think the book has a lot to say to us now. Or am I just attuned to its comedic discounting of artistic ambitions, being myself another creative soul all fired up with nowhere to go?

Whatever. At this point this book review has to take a dark twist.

Had you asked me last month, ‘Have you read any Joyce Cary?’, I would have said, ‘No, but I have some of his books on the shelf, and I plan to get around to them someday.’

For years I delayed reading Joyce Cary because of a casual prejudice formed on the slenderest of evidences. I suppose the covers of his books had the wrong look about them, or somewhere I had picked up the idea that he was a dull writer. I threw him into a ‘maybe later’ category, where hundreds of other writers also languish.  

It’s scary to think how much I must have missed in life because of my ignorant reliance on slapdash inferences.

In any event, I recently read his short stories (Spring song and other stories, published 1956) and I was so impressed that I pulled out  The horse’s mouth to read also, knowing it to be his most popular work. As soon as I opened it, I saw my name on the flyleaf and the year 2002, meaning that I must have read it then, 21 years ago. But I had forgotten it completely.  

Where do books go in one’s memory, that one can forget them so utterly and yet recognise them again on rereading? Soon I was thinking, ‘How the fuck did I forget this book?’ — because I love books, and The horse’s mouth seemed like a book I could have, should have, loved. It chimed in my heart, and I remembered it better and better as I went along. It was no chore to read it all again, even the somewhat repetitive bits (yes, there are a few).

Quite a lot has harrowed my soul since 2002, and perhaps that is what drove The horse’s mouth into a locked cupboard of my mind. Or maybe in 2002 I didn’t like The horse’s mouth as much as I do now. Maybe I did and I forgot it anyway — although this idea is too upsetting to entertain. Perhaps it is simply the truth that I don’t have the continuity or consistency that I imagine I possess — perhaps that is true of us all. From moment to moment one says,  ‘Here I am, this is what I believe, this is what happened, this is what I am like.’ But this may not guarantee anything about identity, because this sense of self and all the materials that underpin may be changing from moment to moment. That is, one’s sense of continuity and consistency may be only be a consistent and continuous illusion.

In the light of these reflections, please treat my earnest recommendation of The horse’s mouth with caution. I may not agree with myself tomorrow. I may deny all knowledge. Besides, if you are not like me — and no-one is very like me, as far as I can tell — you might not like this book at all.

What do others say about The horse’s mouth?

  • It has a four-star rating on Goodreads.
  • Wikipedia’s little article on the book is more informative about the movie adaptation made in 1950 and starring Alec Guinness, but it does contain this one-line review: ‘Philip Larkin described the book as “not superlative but managing to catch something of the indomitable soul of art. Really rather moving.”’
  • https://thegreatestbooks.org/ lists it, absurdly, as ‘The 900th greatest fiction book of all time’ and quotes John Betjeman: ‘Joyce Cary is an important and exciting writer… To use Tennyson’s phrase, he is a Lord of Language … if you like rich writing full of gusto and accurate original character drawing, you will get it from The Horse’s Mouth.’
© 2023 Craig Bingham

Read something similar:

What to read? [firing the canon in our timeless time]
Reviews of old books [old books are vile, aren’t they?]
Enmeshed — thoughts on ‘Never let me go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

Read something different:

The unrepentant ruffian [a sonnet||a ballad]
Puzzle [why do we care about the little things?]
Party trick [the terror of a striking resemblance]
David Foster Wallace sits at his desk alone [a kind of tribute to an idea of a writer]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s