Gulley’s Humor

It was love at first sight.

There’s a fitting opening for this week’s revisit of a Golden Oldie, because that indeed is the opening line of its text, and a reflection of my attitude toward it.

The only problem is that it will have to wait a fortnight, thanks to a package from The New York Review of Books, containing “The Horse’s Mouth” by Joyce Cary. “Horse,” too, was love at first sight, when assigned as undergraduate reading, and subsequently in the real world, and now for the third time, in Montecito.

Originally published in the early 1940s, largely ignored in the clamor of WWII, and briefly reemerged thanks to a film, written by and starring Alec Guinness as its gritty, driven protagonist, “The Horse’s Mouth” is largely a genie in a bottle, an enormous and volatile force, imprisoned in an alloy of convention and chance.

Few works of fiction or criticism so succinctly and graphically demonstrate what it is to be an artist, to have the genie of artistry imprisoned in the bottle of one’s self. But for an accident of birth and a rearranging of the furniture of chance, Gulley Jimson might have been shown in major galleries, hung in museums, owned by wealthy private collectors, at least a succès d’estime if not a truly great artist.

As the novel begins, Jimson, fast approaching 70, has just been released from a jail sentence, earned, it seems, because he lost his temper and engaged in violent and destructive behavior. Told throughout from Jimson’s first-person point of view, here he is, out on the street and eager to get back to painting. And of course, something to paint with:

“I had two and six left from my prison money. I reckoned that five pounds would set me up with bed, board, and working capital. That left four pounds, seventeen and six to be won. From friends. But when I went over my friends, I seemed to owe them more than that; more than they could afford.”

Early on, Jimson states his sense of devotion to and identification with William Blake (1757-1827) of “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright” fame. “Greatest Englishman who ever lived,” Jimson avers. “Poet and painter. Never had a chance.” Our Gulley might well have been speaking for himself as well, but this does not keep him from trying.

In the first 50 or so pages, Jimson, fresh out of prison, mind you, is seen attempting to convince someone he is president of the London Chapter of the William Blake Society, which is badly in need of funding, and which, for a few pounds, could be relied upon to bestow its vice-presidency on the proper donor. A mouth filled with rubber bands to disguise his voice, he is overheard attempting to gain the patronage of a wealthy art collector. Mouth now free of the rubber bands, he is trying to cadge a place to stay from the owner of a pub, a young woman whom he already owes money and is having no more of his stories.

By now you’ll have the impression that Jimson’s moral compass points elsewhere than true anything at all; it is constantly shifting as Jimson is examining and evaluating some of the most precious commodities for a visual artist, light, and color.

The same dramatic opening pages that convince you Jimson is a rogue also convince that he is that hive of roaring ideas, visions, and concepts we associate with art and the men and women who actively ply it. With this character and his reverence for Blake, author Joyce Carey discovered artistry of his own. Himself a failed painter, now a storyteller, he allows us to see how far Jimson will go to pursue the life of the artist. Were Jimson more of a piece with the likes of Constable or Turner or even Eakins, there would be less story and more theory and art history. By turning Jimson’s social caste down a few notches, throwing a few hints that he might indeed be great, Cary raises the issue of what greatness is without long tedious or tendentious blather.

In allowing Jimson’s reverence for Blake to come forth, even though Jimson is well aware of other painters such as Vermeer and Tintoretto, Cary raises the issue of talent, sanity, and devotion in the best way for fiction. There is the persistent battle raging within our own perception of him. Is Jimson a humbug? Is he a genius? Is he a madman? As Jimson uses color in his work and, revisiting it, wonders what could have caused him to use so much, say red or blue, we see a man constantly looking for better ways to set down the visions in his head, and through his scratchy, calculating personality, we see the very sort of vulnerability we wish to find in a character we can empathize with. As Barnaby Conrad puts it, “Give us someone to root for and we’ll give you a dedicated reader.” Calculating as Gulley Jimson is, it is for the sake of his vision. He is willing to give up decent meals, resort to stuffing newspapers down his pant legs against the cold, all to buy oils, brushes, canvas to put them on. And when he is presented with the vision of an epic work, “The Raising of Lazarus,” and opportunity – no this is not a spoiler – for an unparalleled surface on which to render it, we are with him all the way.

William Somerset Maugham did something collateral to the character of Charles Strickland in his novel, “The Moon and Sixpence.” Based heavily on the artist Gauguin, Strickland is driven by his need to see and paint; other characters are left to call his work great. Well rendered as Strickland is as a person, he is no Gulley Jimson; he is meant to suggest Gauguin. Jimson is meant to suggest no one but himself. Jimson is us, if we can bear the company. In my experience as a teacher, readers who are uncomfortable with Jimson are likely to be more interested in external trappings than internal longings and visions.

Don Quixote had his Sancho Panza. Gulley Jimson has a bumbling, stuttering young man who follows him through the labyrinths of the London art and social world, wanting Jimson as a mu-men-tutor because he has the burning desire to paint and Jimson is the only artist he nun-nows.

The New York Review of Books has begun a series of forgotten classics, of which this is one. In any format, Gulley Jimson, his passions, his art, and his ambiguous hold on either genius or madness casts Rembrandt lighting on a literary gem.