‘If I’m to make a good job of detesting the society of poets and painters, I must first find out what it’s like.’ That’s Houda speaking, the main character of Emir (1963) – in her twenties, tramping the London streets with her notebook – or it may be the author, Rosemary Tonks, known in poetry circles for two short collections published in the 1960s and for her disappearance. Wikipedia states it baldly: ‘Tonks stopped publishing poetry in the early 1970s, at about the same time as her conversion to a form of Christianity. Nothing is known publicly about her subsequent life.’ She is, word has it, still alive.
If her novels are (Wiki again) ‘a form of fictional autobiography’, then she set about researching the society of poets and painters conscientiously: bookshops, galleries, cheap restaurants, house parties, eccentrics on private incomes, affairs. And it doesn’t seem surprising that she ended up detesting it. Conversations in Emir are witty and bitchy; the epigrams that stud each page are laced with cynicism.
A flavour of the style (quote marks only when necessary; some of these come from dialogue, some from first-person musing, some from the authorial voice):
He was delighted to see her; provided they observed the rules, each could rely on five minutes to talk about himself. / ‘You don’t know one thing about life.’ ‘It’s perfectly true I’m not involved in buying and selling and killing, getting married and having babies.’ / If mother and daughter had been of opposite sexes, it would have been true to say they were conducting a long and extremely savage love affair. / Like all sentimental people, he was capable of the most atrocious cruelty. / It was one of those moments by which women are able to find out how old they are; a calendar is merely an abstract. / I’m talking to a stale newspaper. / Below the waist, under the fold of tablecloth or paper, the body of a man descends to the claw and the hoof. / Eugene is only proud of me when I am able to hurt him. / If the way up to a publisher’s staircarpet led over my heart, you would not hesitate to tread it. / A woman only talks about herself to a man she classes as ‘safe’. / There is no one an intellectual would rather be seen talking to than a British workman. / There are few more degrading compromises than those the artist makes when he gives in to the pleasure of being read by someone he can expect to lavish him with praise he knows to be worthless. / She was confronted by an elderly man who was forcing lettuce into a great hot beard. / I am no Englishman who leaves emotion to his spaniel. / The European goes in terror of sincerity: he considers it the hallmark of a man without resources. / He winds me up in order to procure sensation for his nerves. / There are remarks which lie intact in the brain for days. They are felt but ignored, like damaged tissue, while the work of repairing vanity goes on. / One of the most complex games ever invented – that of a pleasing an artist who is under the impression he is great, without impaling yourself on his vanity. / My mother has learnt to tie a scarf under her chin and walk in the rain; but she deceives no one. / Nobody had taken the trouble to point out that the first of the natural gifts of genius is a thousand a year. / Beauty is not in the eye; it is in the pocket. / ‘I thought you were pretending to be bored.’ ‘I’m glad I succeeded in arousing your interest so cleverly.’ ‘It was simply that you looked well off.’ / I have always considered beauty to be a grocer’s word. / Within a few seconds the need to be offensive to Eugene had made him ten times more attractive. Which explains the enormous success of wasters and Don Juans. A woman will go out of her way to excite the interest of a man who has cheapened her. / Over-subtlety tends to heighten the squalor of the underlying motive. / A man out with a gun brings down a piece of the warm firmament with a squeaking fowl still alive in it. / At most of the major disasters in our lives we behave like spectators. / A poor man knows that his strongest weapon is your fear of his contempt. / Love is quite incidental to any successful relationship; even dangerous. Whereas the courteous lie is indispensable; but an admission of defeat. / A successful model gives the appearance of a radiant child dressed with extreme dowdiness. / There are women who station themselves for life at the foot of a flight of stairs. / Every now and then someone made a joke which, taking them by surprise, made them feel that perhaps they were enjoying themselves. / With the gravest possible forebodings Eugene kissed the mouth of this errand-boy – a moist crack, very black, and salty with mutiny. / The unsuccessful lover has something in common with the agnostic: each has to a certain extent given in to his intelligence. / Accuse the most austere of men of high living, and you have made a friend for life. / Here’s your twentieth-century bigot – a man whose ideals are strong enough to isolate him from the slightest tinge of humanity. / You do not begin to know a room until you have walked a hundred yards or so into it.
That’s more than a flavour, I know, but she is quotable. It’s all pretty intense; the novel is just 122 pages. Me, I like best the sentences in which she’s not trying to score points in the parlour game of cleverness. I wonder if she ever reads, now, her own books. I doubt it.