Ben Weasel is a punk rock musician, leader of Screeching Weasel. An Italian version of this article appears in Tempi’s “Idee per respirare” edition, which is entirely dedicated to suggested readings “not to waste your holiday time”.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed a disturbing trend on sites like Goodreads in which people pan novels due to unlikeable main characters. These reviewers conflate “likeable” with “sympathetic” and, what’s worse, with “morally upright.” This astounds me, as it should any reader. It means Macbeth, Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment must all be lousy works. The idea seems to be an offshoot of the equally loopy notion that great artists are supposed to be great people as well. I hope the people who believe this sort of nonsense never run across a copy of Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth or they’ll end up afflicted with a nasty case of the vapors.
Gulley Jimson, protagonist of The Horse’s Mouth, is both a heel and a great artist. “When I came to London in ’99,” recalls Jimson, “I was a regular clerk. I had a bowler, a home, a nice little wife, a nice little baby, and a bank account. I sent money to my mother every other week, and helped my sister. A nice happy respectable young man. I enjoyed life in those days. But one day when I was sitting in our London office on Bankside, I dropped a blot on an envelope; and having nothing to do just then, I pushed it about with my pen to try and make it look more like a face. And the next thing I was drawing figures in red and black, on the same envelope. And from that moment I was done for.”
Jimson’s home is a shack by the river. He spends his days avoiding creditors, borrowing money from people who don’t know better and taking financial advantage of women. When he has supplies, he paints. When he doesn’t, he observes the landscape around him with his painter’s eye, tucking away what he takes in for future use. His muse is the poetry of William Blake; for Jimson, art is theology and Blake its high priest. Jimson is manically driven to create, to the exclusion of everything else, including tact, honor and common decency. He lies, cheats and steals. He camouflages his bitterness with a veneer of mild, dispassionate acceptance, belied by bouts of rage and crank calls made to his elderly, long-suffering patron, Hickson. He is a very unlikeable character.
He owes money to his friend Coker, the homely barmaid at one of his haunts. He owes money to everyone, but Coker is a determined woman. She couldn’t care less about art, but she suspects Jimson might be telling the truth when he claims to be a genius, so she drags him to see Hickson to demand the return of certain nudes of Jimson’s former common-law wife, Sara Monday; Jimson claims they’re worth a fortune. While Coker argues with Hickson, Jimson wanders around the study, reciting to himself Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Suddenly the poem reveals to him his next painting – a depiction of the Fall of Man. In his reverie, he pockets some snuff boxes. The butler notices, the police arrive, Jimson flees, is apprehended, and spends the next six months in jail. Not for the first time. At sixty-seven, this must be getting old.
Upon his release, he procures the perfect canvas for The Fall and returns to the shack where he discovers an 8-months-pregnant Coker living in his digs. The father has fled, so Coker’s mother has paid the back rent and moved in. She’ll have no Jimsons around; she sends him packing with a clout on the ear, and, most importantly, without his canvas.
Cue a farcical series of events in which Jimson attempts to recover his canvas while ex-wives, the police and, seemingly, the forces of nature conspire against him. A young, aspiring artist who Jimson dismissively refers to as “Nosey” hangs around fetching coffee and aiding and abetting Jimson in his schemes. Jimson receives an admiring letter from an art critic named Alabaster and briefly dreams of success, but the critic turns out to be as useless as Nosey. As usual, nothing works out for Gulley Jimson.
Over and again, Jimson butts heads with pragmatists who know how to get along in the real world but either don’t appreciate or can’t understand the value of art, be they the small-minded Mrs. Coker, the reasonable, intelligent, and completely unimaginative Hickson, the mercenary Sara Monday, the determinedly liberal, urbane Sir William and Lady Beeder, or Mr. Plant, a philosophy-loving boot maker who punctures his hand with a dirty needle, resulting in an amputation. Plant has been reduced to a pitiful, almost animal-like state when Jimson finds him in a boarding house, fighting for scraps with the other residents. Jimson might be a crumb and a hustler, but he is a painter and so he paints. Plant has lost his trade; his is a sensible, reasonable trade that has no use for a one-armed man.
Gulley Jimson is pure drive and compulsion; constantly in motion; feeding on everyone around him for sustenance. If Jimson is poor, well, of course he’s poor! How could he be anything else! He gives nothing to the world but his art, and he’s long ago learned the world doesn’t much care.
The Horse’s Mouth is the third novel in Cary’s trilogy that also includes Herself Surprised, about the life of the remarkably unreliable narrator Sara Monday, and the excellent To Be A Pilgrim, told by Thomas Wilcher, Sara Monday’s employer and eventual victim. Sara Monday is comically duplicitous; Wilcher is solemnly honest, albeit it through a filter of melancholy and regret; Jimson is self-serving and self-obsessed. The entire trilogy is a remarkable artistic achievement but Cary believed The Horse’s Mouth was the most popular of the three because it’s funny. He may have been right, but I suspect the reason The Horse’s Mouth remains so beloved is because Gulley Jimson, odious as he often is, rouses our sympathy in a way that a superficially likeable, sympathetic character can’t; ultimately, Gulley Jimson behaves in a way perhaps all of us would were we to forgo security and safety and fully give in to the impulse to create, without concern for anything else.
Of course, that’s impossible, which is why we have to remember that Gulley Jimson is a character – neither a real person nor a moral lesson. He shows us what it’s like to give one’s self to art without reservation, and if the result isn’t always easy to look at, why should it be?
Eventually Gulley Jimson is felled by a stroke just as the city knocks down the half-ruined building on whose wall he’s painting his latest masterpiece, The Creation. He lies in his hospital bed, ranting with that same idiosyncratic spark with which he’s entranced us for 300 pages, when the nun attending him warns him that he’s too ill to speak.
“It would be better for you to pray,” she says.
“Same thing, mother,” replies Gulley Jimson.