Trick or treatment by Steve Xerri

Fiction Magazine cover
Cover of Fiction, July 1988

The following appeared in London's Fiction magazine, July 1988.

Q : What on earth is A Humument?

A : "A book started 20 years ago, now in its second printing and with several of the original pages replaced by others, as part of a planned recycling that will be completed on publication of the thirtieth edition."

A : "A collection of full-colour images drawn or painted page by page on the body of an obscure Victorian novel, namely A Human Document by W.H. Mallock."

A : "The new text that is left when most of an old story is crossed out to leave only fragmentary and resonant nuggets of wording - just as its name results from removing the middle section of Mallock's title."

Until you actually hold a copy in your hands, you will have to make do with these descriptions of one of the most extraordinary books currently available - descriptions which can only begin to hint at the strange pleasures of trying to read a book where visual embellishment has gone further than mere illustration, and become one of the mainstays of the text. A Humument hovers between being a book of beautiful pictures and a fragmented narrative, its voice uttering a kind of impossible-speak that still makes sense.

If that makes it sound like Max Ernst meets Robbe-Grillet, then I'd better start again, because a label that po-faced is the last thing it deserves : it is in fact full of humour and a kind of delight in the very possibility of being able to discover a book at random, ransack it, distort it, de-nature it, and do a kind of ventriloquist's act with a voice long-dead. Perhaps Joyce's borrowing of Homer for his comic masterpiece Ulysses comes close - though Tom Phillips leaves the bones of his host book showing more clearly, and has subjected it to a more obviously systematic treatment, sometimes using chance techniques and generally allowing the original to determine his creation more literally than Joyce did. Mr Bloom is a re-interpretation of Ulyssean heroism, but one of Phillips's main characters, a man called Toge, can only appear where the Mallock text contained the parent-words 'together' or 'altogether', and his shape on the page is governed by the gaps in the writing. Nevertheless, Phillips says that whenever he visits a new town, he plays the game of looking in the phone book to see whether or not a real Bill Toge exists : "One day I'll find him, moonlight behind him", he says.

Such levity was not a quality for which W.H. Mallock was noted. "He does not seem a very agreeable person : withdrawn and humourless, a snob and a racist", according to Phillips. It is perhaps all the more remarkable that he is able to work off a text whose author he thinks of in such terms, but there is a pointer there to one of A Humument's most intriguing aspects ; that it at once appears a depersonalised piece of writing - containing no words of its author's own devising, and yet is shot through with him, so that parts of the skeleton narrative sound almost autobiographical, and his name, his visual likeness, appear scattered throughout the rifled pages. "Yes," he confirms, "it's an enacted person, not the real me - whatever that may mean - but why not just write something out is the question, isn't it? Why go through such tortuous ways of finding texts if you feel something, or think something, or want to say something? The thing is, you just don't know what you think or feel until you find some way of cornering yourself, like you're cornered with a page of somebody else's text and having made yourself certain rules, and being the kind of person that sticks to rules, you find something that you actually think, within that text. I always feel 'that is right' in some funny way, that is what I isolate from the text, and therefore it's a statement of mine, in some sense." And how does it feel, when you find yourself so cornered? "Spooky, as Dame Edna would say."

So who is the real Tom Phillips? When I interviewed him at his house in Peckham, a house that's "nearly all studio", it felt like walking into the archetypal image of a painter's life. We talked in a room full of paintbrushes and sketches and canvasses in mid-painting : there were outlines of faces traced on the ceiling, with the walls smothered in pictures - little studies, postcard repros of his old works, and what he calls a 'mulch' of odds and ends and fag packets richly littering the floor. Here, he paints as much of the day and night as he can, working at an activity he says he loves, but doesn't necessarily like. He is a member of the Royal Academy, and can trace back a lineage through his teachers at Camberwell and their teachers before them to Sickert, Ingres and ultimately Raphael. But there's more : the painter and ex art-teacher (Brian Eno among his pupils) is also a composer and singer. "I'm doing lots of things at the moment. I'm just recording this opera next week, my 'Irma', well-known evergreen of the operatic world! There's no call for the record except mine and the people recording it, a little company called Matchless Recordings."

This is delivered, as are many of his remarks, with a kind of ironic twinkle, for the opera he simultaneously puffs and hedges with modesty is his own composition (its text also derived from Mallock), and he is set to perform in it. "It's positively my farewell performance ; I appear buried in lots of recordings of the 60s and 70s - right in the middle of something like Klemperer's 'Ein Deutsches Requiem' there's me singing, though you can't spot me, making mistakes."

Latterly, he has turned his hand to translating, producing over seven years his own version of another massive work, Dante's Inferno, which he has published in a big edition sumptuously illustrated - using his own etchings, found images, cut-ups and, as a kind of sub-commentary, yet more snatches of text quarried from Mallock. ("I decided A Human Document was an inexhaustible book ; there was nothing I wanted to say that I couldn't get out of it.")

As if that were not enough, he is now working with Peter Greenaway (of 'Draughtsman's Contract' and 'Belly of an Architect' fame) on a projected eight-hour video-book of the Inferno, one Canto of which has been shown on Channel Four. After that, of course, there will be the Purgatory and Paradise volumes to do...

A busy life, then, in which painting is but one centre, but Phillips seems to take a relaxed view of his own talents. "Well, I don't have an amazing single gift. I'm not a great painter or anything, like Velasquez, so if I'm going to get all my armoury together in one focus, to make words and image go together, then I stand a chance using two gifts of making some unique contribution. Not," he adds quickly, "that I was thinking of that when I started - it was just what I fancied doing. I enjoyed it. I like words."

Before working on A Humument, he did paintings such as Benches, on show in the Tattoo Gallery, on which he would stencil lengthy captions. "Often," he explains, "you try and find why you did these things and the silliest reason is the first reason - it makes the picture bigger." (Here sounds the gentle laughter with which he often lightens his sentences.) "The second reason was that people always ask you about pictures, and I thought if you wrote at the bottom what it was all about, that would preclude that kind of questioning thereafter for all time : but absolutely not, because then people say 'What's all this about, writing at the bottom of pictures?', so the question now refers to the new element you put in, which was supposed to obviate the question!" And why wish to obviate the question? "Well, it's embarrassing : you can't describe your life to the person next to you on the plane to Glasgow or something - you don't feel like doing it. Like when you get a lift off a lorry driver, it's much easier to make up somebody else's life, say you're a nuclear physicist and see if you can busk that one out for an hour and a quarter. You want to be honest about your own life and yet it's much too boring to be honest, so you've got to say something."

To the suggestion that this line of thinking sounds almost like wanting to disappear a little and not put yourself up front, he replies "I'll tell you what it is - it's wanting to disappear up front!" Disappearing up front, and the interest in creating fictions to suit a particular situation bring us back to A Humument, and grew out of Phillips's interest in the nature of wordplay freed from the confines of normal self-expression. Rather than struggling to find the right words to "say something", he began to take groups of words already assembled - the edges of columns in the New Statesman, for example - to see what sense could be extracted from them in other contexts "Well," he recalls, "it was just fiddling about while waiting for the kettle to boil or something like that. That's how it started off - one could always start a life mania by watching a butterfly out of the window and 16 years later you're the world's leading entomologist (if that's the right word). You might ask if it was really as casual as that, but there was something about the butterfly that meant more to you than other things you might be looking at. It's one of those British things : you don't really make decisions, you do things and they seem all right so you do a bit more and then you find you're the person who does that thing."

From such beginnings grew the project that was to become a half a life's work, turning a coherent Victorian text into a haunting broken recounting of Bill Toge's pursuit of love - specifically, of Irma. The book has no connected narrative as such, but as with a piece of music, the reader can feel thematic progressions, as the book appears to talk of despair and happiness, longing and sex, illness and death - all the great subjects a conventional story might choose to treat. Though a great deal of the stuffing has been knocked out of the book, so that we get little in the way of character psychology or plausible realist descriptions of behaviour, what is left is a sufficiently playful diagram of a novel for us to enjoy reading the shreds and mumbles of Mallock behind which, disappearing up front for all he's worth, Tom Phillips the arranger and selector is at work.

What may have been first undertaken while waiting for kettles to boil had its more seriously avant-garde aspect, and Phillips says that William Burroughs encouraged him to continue the work. "I went to see Burroughs - a fearsome personality, I found him, one of those chilling people, but exciting to talk to. He keeps you on your toes, he's so brilliant : I think he's one of the cleverest men I've met - it's like talking to Wittgenstein but only he's talking about literature and drugs and stuff like that. He made wonderful suggestions which are far beyond my capacities about what you could do with this method : here was somebody who didn't think that books couldn't be interfered with. That was quite nice, because until quite recently there were a couple of libraries who wouldn't acquire A Humument because they thought it would encourage people to draw on books..."

Whatever his debt, Phillips's own text of fragments is much less excoriating than the cutups for which Burroughs is famous. Take for example page 176, whose text Phillips later used as the endpiece for his Inferno: 'my stories of a soul's surprise, a soul which crossed a chasm in whose depths I find I found myself and nothing more than that'. Without the accompanying painting and removed from its context as one page among hundreds, the force of that sentence is rather reduced, but even so it reveals something of the flavour of the book, especially that feeling that the words are nothing to do with an utterer (it being unlikely that anyone would choose to think in that particular wording) and yet are personal ('I found myself').

The sentiment emerging from the page is certainly akin to Phillips's own. "I'm sometimes amazed at what it has said, like with ouija boards, you're amazed at what is thrown up. It still surprises me, that's my motivation. When I re-look with a self that's changing, it's still springing things at me that l hadn't seen the first time or wasn't ready for or wasn't thinking of, so it's a continually viable thing. One of the processes being indulged in is finding out what the true undertext of the book A Human Document is : what I've done with it must be a general truth about the thing itself and about me - it illuminates those two things. But I've got an alibi, to say it isn't me it was this other guy : and he can say it isn't me, it's this other guy interfering with me."

Given that the book in some way maps out the overlap of the two personalities, Phillips profiting where he wishes from his original ("It has a kind of predictive nostalgia, sounding weary and in the past even at the time of its writing - a dusty kind of quality, and a peculiarly rich vocabulary") and submitting it to some violence when need be ("You can squeeze words out of words that they aren't ; you can get 'arse' out of it, whereas Mallock of course would never use the word"), it might begin to seem as if no room is left for the reader between the two presences already crowding into the text. So does it matter if people don't get coherent narratives of their own out of this book of bits?

"I don't know what 'matter' means. It's only something to entertain people, to divert them in a pleasant way with perhaps occasional leaks into profundity. I just hope they'll find any pleasant way of reading it. In the Middle Ages they used to read Virgil like in the 60s people used to read the I Ching, as a mode of divination : I don't think that was any of Virgil's intent, but it seemed to work and people enjoyed it that way."

The modesty of this ambition for his humane little book, that its clashing of minds should spark off others, is perhaps part of Tom Phillips's playing down of self, but it is no game ; it has real consequences for him. "It's more or less subsidised by me because I want the luxury of being able to change the pages each time it comes out, which costs a lot of money and swallows up the profit-possibilities of it. I've got used to not making any money out of books." Indeed, his version of Dante's Inferno, a spectacularly handsome work, has cost him dear not only in time but financially : "I must be forty or fifty thousand quid down on it. I re-mortgaged the house. It's not dedication, it's folly, and not working things out beforehand : it's very clever, one's got a marvellous system inside one of sheer optimism - the thing was, I really wanted to do this so I kidded myself it was a viable commercial enterprise." All of this is told by Phillips without visible rancour ("I've never been in credit in my whole life - when I was a student I owed £10 to the bank : now I owe £74,000 to various banks, so I'm quite rich!"), and if his compendium of the damned in hell contains his bank's heraldic symbol on the page reserved for usurers, it's perhaps no more of a comment than is his use of a micro-chip elsewhere in the book to represent Dante's vision of future human development.

It is not that Phillips has sought an obscure corner on the art bookshelves for his work : but he likens it to "many plays on fringe theatre, very entertaining but somehow they're lost in their own world, forever condemned to circuit in that Limbo." But if the pilot Canto from the Inferno on Channel Four is anything to go by, Phillips's dense colourful vision of treated image and text will transfer brilliantly to the small screen. And who knows, maybe a generation brought up on visual sampling and video cutups will take it to their collective heart, and work their way back through his printed work, to his 'poor little book, very rich for eyes.'