Thursday 26 September 2013

Samuel Wright & Josh Lustig - The Marshes

Have you read Joyce's Dubliners recently? It's breathtakingly good - and coming back to it after almost thirty years I'm almost prepared to argue it's his best book. It's certainly the most subtly organised and psychologically penetrating of his four great masterpieces, and while it lacks the modernist fireworks of Ulysses and the numbing originality of Finnegans Wake it has more to say about the human condition, the human heart, than either of the intimidating masterpieces. It has more, therefore, to offer the older reader. I'm thinking in particular, and for reasons which will become clear later, of An Encounter in which two Dublin schoolboys play truant and come across an unprepossessing middle-aged man who engages them in an increasingly sinister, one-sided conversation:

After a long while his monologue paused. He stood up slowly, saying that he had to leave us for a minute or so, a few minutes, and, without changing the direction of my gaze, I saw him walking slowly away from us towards the near end of the field. We remained silent when he had gone. After a silence of a few minutes I heard Mahony exclaim:

"I say! Look what he's doing!"

As I neither answered nor raised my eyes Mahony exclaimed again:

"I say... He's a queer old josser!"

"In case he asks us for our names," I said "let you be Murphy and I'll be Smith."

It's unclear what precisely the man is doing. Urinating? Defecating? Masturbating? Something else? I wonder how many readers realise that 'josser' was (and for all I know still is) a Dublin slang word for God. At least that's what my tutor at university once told me although I can find no evidence of this elsewhere. If it is indeed the case Joyce is doing something attractively subversive here. Another  Josser links to my blog about the variety entertainer Ernie Lotinga, who made a series of low-budget comedy films featuring an eponymous character named Josser - Josser on the River (1932), Josser Joins the Navy (1932) and Josser on the Farm (1934). Lotinga played Josser, but that's all I know. Let's get back to Joyce - or rather another very promising author called Samuel Wright.

Samuel Wright

I was reminded of An Encounter when reading Wright's Best Friend, a spell-binding short story that strikes me as a dark, latter-day equivalent to Joyce's original. It appears in The Marshes, a collaboration between the author and the photographer Josh Lustig, whose images beautifully capture the atmosphere of East London's Hackney Marshes, where the story is set.

Hackney Marshes by Josh Lustig

Best Friend seems to begin where An Encounter ends - it's another truant adventure but unlike the Joyce story it has a grim aftermath. Two boys (Bobby and Jay) bunk off to spend the day tearing around the Marshes and at one point they see something:

"Look!" Jay hissed.

Bobby turned back. On the other side of the water was a guy sitting down. And then Bobby saw he had his trousers down and was having a shit.

Jay said "uugh" really quietly.

The guy stood up. His hands were shaking. His flabby white bum looked cold and horrible amongst the trees. It somehow made the mud more muddy, and the tangle of the branches dirtier and more rubbishy.

What happens later that day is vividly rendered and memorably horrible. Here's what Robert MacFarlane (chair of judges for the 2013 Man Booker prize and author of The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, one of my favourite books of the year so far) had this to say:

        [W]hat a dark, beautifully made, intricately imagined document it is. I have read it through 
        twice now, if it is something one reads through (rather than around, or into and out of), and 
        I find myself no closer to comprehension (which would not anyway be your goal, I know), 
        but fascinated and troubled by it. It stakes out a space. It is not easy to shake.

He's right. Superb typesetting, haunting images and elaborate inserts (see below) combine to make this a very collectible first edition. But it's the words that compel. Samuel Wright won a Society of Authors prize for this story earlier this year and is now working on his first novel. We should all look out for that.

The Marshes by Samuel Wright and Josh Lustig (Tartaruga Press, 2013)

The Marshes is published by Tartaruga Press in a limited edition of 300. Order a copy here.
You can read Best Friend as a download for just a quid by clicking here.

Dubliners extract © The Estate of James Joyce

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