Stefan Themerson's neo-surrealist style enables him to interweave incongruities, ludic exercises, shrewd observations, jokes, lightly worn learning

Stefan Themerson, Bayamus and Cardinal Polatuo: Two Novels (Exact Change, 1997)

«Two Dadaist novels by the Polish-born British writer Themerson. "Bayamus" is the story of a three-legged creature with one leg attached to a roller skate who visits the "Theater of Semantic Poetry." In "Cardinal Polatuo", readers are introduced to the true father of Guillame Apollinaire, a high church dignitary with murderous interests in both poetry and Freudian psychology.»

«The central concerns of Stefan Themerson's writing are ethics and language. He wrote in Polish, French and, after he came to live in England in 1942, in English. He wrote novels, poetry, philosophical essays, some essays on art, a play, an opera (libretto and music), and a book on photograms and experimental cinema. During the 1930s, in Warsaw and then in Paris, he also wrote books for children illustrated by his wife.
He invented 'semantic poetry' which first appeared in his novel Bayamus (1949). It is a sort of poetry that prefers the matter-of-fact meanings of words in dictionary definitions to the romantic euphemism of poetic conventions.
His novels range from elaborate allegories to satirical thrillers. The humanitarian philosophy that underpins them all was crystallised in The Chair of Decency, a talk given as the Huizinga lecture in Leyden in 1981. It contrasted the innate sense of good with which man is born, with the impassioned pursuit of belief and causes by which he is subsequently deluded. Means are more important than Aims, Themerson said. Aims are cultural but the proper means are biological.»

«This is the first U.S. publication of two riotous novels by the Polish-born British writer Stefan Themerson (1910-1988), who with his wife Franciszka ran the Gaberbocchus Press in London. Gaberbocchus published both Kurt Schwitters and Bertrand Russell - and these extremes unite in Themerson's highly individual brand of philosophical Dadaism. Bayamus recounts the adventures of a self-proclaimed mutant with three legs (one is attached to a roller skate) and his efforts to propogate a new species; it includes an instructive visit to the "Theatre of Semantic Poetry," where old rhymes mutate into new truths. Cardinal Polatuo is the biography of Apollinaire's anonymous father, who turns out to be a ecclesiast with a murderous interest in poetry, a faith based on science, and a dreamlife so frankly obscene that only a dictionary of Freudian symbols can explain its innocence.»

«Stefan Themerson (1910-1988), a Polish emigrant and prominent member of the Polish avant-garde, moved to England in 1942 and established the Gaberbocchus Press with this wife Franciszka, eventually publishing such diverse voices as Alfred Jarry, Kurt Schwitters, Raymond Queneau, and Bertrand Russell. This jarring assembly aptly describes Themerson's own motley writing. In his books we encounter philosophical parodies prosaically transcribed by a startling avant-garde sensibility. Imagine, if you can, a comic philosophical treatise composed by an utterly serious dadaist.
The two novels published in this volume provide a great introduction to Themerson's innovative style and thought. In Bayamus the narrator follows a man with three legs to the Theatre of Anatomy and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry. The latter is the novel's true destination, where its real concern is explored. Semantic poets insist on clear thinking and the need to free poetic words of vague and multiple associations. To do this the poet must replace each questionable word with the more precise phrasing of a dictionary definition. This method of substitution feels notably Oulipian, and, fittingly enough, Themerson's semantic rendition of "Taffy was a Welshman" has been included in Mathews and Brotchie's Oulipo Compendium.
Cardinal Polatuo, while possibly even more absurd, is also more striking in its philosophical satire. The Cardinal composes a 6,940-page "Philosophy of Polatuomism," which attempts to prove that far from undermining the Church's tenets, science is a subset and further proof of the validity of religious belief. Polatuo is equally set on disclaiming Russell's logical positivism and on destroying that great enemy of his faith, poetry. Unfortunately, this also entails ridding the world of his eighteen-year-old, in-utero poet son, Guillaume Apollinaire.
Presented in one of Exact Change's always-elegant editions, this volume is a wonderful way to be introduced to the twisted and hilarious world of Stefan Themerson.» - David Ian Paddy
Stefan Themerson, The Mystery of the Sardine (Dalkey Archive Press, 2006)

«When an unknown black poodle inexplicably explodes in philosophy professor Timothy Chesterton-Brown's back yard--paralyzing the professor and killing his guest--the "mystery of the sardine" begins. Its solution will involve such unwitting detectives as a twelve-year-old mathematician, his mother, his beloved, a palmist named Miss Prentice, and a bureaucrat dubbed the Minister of Imponderabilia. The clues they unearth - drawing on logic, the occult, intuition, and everything in between - lead them far away from the tiny seaside town where they begin. We follow them to Majorca, Rome, Warsaw, and London, but in the end, the solution lies beyond even the furthest and most magical reaches of reason.»

«What an extraordinary writer Stefan Themerson is. While other novelists seem hell-bent on creating great, enormous doorstops of books with very little in them, Mr. Themerson produces The Mystery of the Sardine, a slim and modest volume which is absolutely jam-packed with ideas.» - Punch

«This story begins with an exploding poodle, which sets the tone for the comic mystery. The case of the detonated dog is taken up by a team of amateur sleuths, including a 12-year-old math whiz and his mom, an aging daughter of a Polish general, a politician called the Minister of Imponderabilia, and other assorted screwballs.» - Library Journal

«If there is a detective setting out to solve the mystery of the sardine, s/he sits in a chair (perhaps an armchair) reading Stefan Themerson’s novel The Mystery of the Sardine. The detection is in the reading, and the mystery is in the text, in the asking: What is this book about? How are all these characters related? What is the unifying concept?
I haven’t solved the mystery, but I’m not concerned by that. A lack of solution hasn’t hindered my enjoyment of the process. Themerson is a singularly intelligent and insightful writer whose novels are enjoyable rides into the everyday philosophies of disparate groups of characters. He weaves together this novel, which was originally published in 1986 and has been reissued by the Dalkey Archive Press, from a number of threads that seem at first random but end up in a pattern that replicates not a conventionally structured drama but the world itself.
The novel’s exceedingly complex first half begins with an English writer who carefully divides his life: city and country, anger and peace, the prose for which he is well-regarded and the poetry that he keeps to himself. At his passing, the story follows his wife and his secretary as they start a relationship and move to Majorca. There in Majorca, they receive a visit from a young scholar who is writing a dissertation on the writer and wants to know the color of his eyes, which neither woman recalls, so we (and the story) move back to England where a philosophy professor, his wife, and his daughter all live. One day the scholar visits the philosophy professor, who knew the writer, and both are caught in some kind of terrorist attack when a black poodle strapped with explosives runs up to the house. From here the story goes back to Majorca where the philosophy professor (now in a wheelchair) and his family are vacationing. We meet a young boy; he falls in love with the professor’s daughter (writing the most romantic math thesis you will ever read), and then we return with the boy’s mother, a former palm reader, to the writer’s wife and secretary (though only briefly).
At this point, one begins to realize that Themerson is not writing a conventional novel. Halfway through there is no protagonist (or there are a dozen), no clear plot or movement to the events, just a collection of interrelated characters and their ideas—for each character at some point expresses his or her philosophy about some aspect of the world. This includes both the major characters (those with at least a single chapter from their point of view (of which there are many)) and the briefly appearing supporting characters:
Veronica, the wife of the philosopher and a “poet”—who believes that: “Poetry is not for reading. Poetry is for writing,”—on fakes: “Fakes are always real. They have to be. They are the proof that the true thing exists. When you see a faked Picasso you know there must be a true Picasso somewhere. You can’t have a false Picasso without having a true Picasso first, can you?” Baudrillard may disagree with that.
Or the Judge on logic as he walks along a dusty road in Majorca:
Actually he distinguished two kinds of logic. He called one Perfect Logic, and the other Good Logic. They were not always in agreement with each other. Sometimes they were like cog wheels, Plato’s Heaven or Dante’s Earth, rotating each other in opposite directions. His Perfect Logic would start from some firm convictions and march remorselessly forward, goose step by goose step, coûte que coûte, to some final solution. His Good Logic was different. It had safeguards built into it in case the axioms were wrong. His axioms were spelt out in the Statute book. They could be changed only by an Act of Parliament. Thus, when he saw that the perfect logical conclusion was going to be unjust to the man, the woman, or the child, he, the judge, unable to change the Act of Parliament, would cheat by mincing the steps of his logic, and that’s why he called it “good.” Because (and here he would quote Queen Victoria?) “Goodness is the only thing that never loses it value.”
Or even a Polish chauffeur offering a bit of criticism on the verse engraved on the Statue of Liberty:
“Keep, ancient lands your storied pomp,” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
‘Scuse pronunciation. ‘V’been in America for not very long. They chucked me out. And haven’t heard much English since. Am not sure what the word “storied” means. Your storied pomp. Does it mean many storeys like in their skyscrapers, or like social classes, upper classes, lower classes, or it it like a story meaning history?
Themerson makes these expressions seem natural within the novel. Recently, in reading The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide I was continually bothered by the way the characters speechify so as to express their ideas. Gide makes it clear which philosophies he wants to reader to agree with and which the reader should disagree with, while Themerson seems to take joy in the proliferation of ideas and viewpoints. His is an expansive and investigative method (perhaps the real investigation in this mystery is a philosophic one). The mathematical thesis, entitled “Euclid was an Ass,” written by the young genius is alone almost worth the price of the book. Yes, romantic math.
The second half of the novel continues in this spirit, but also takes on a more traditional narrative role. The majority of part two is focused through the elderly Lady Cooper, a Polish émigré who married a British lord. Part one of the novel ends with a death and a body, and in part two Lady Cooper’s story is indirectly motivated by this death. At a basic level, this mirrors the structure of a detective novel: a death and a body which leads the detective through the rest of the story. Though, in this case, there is no murder to solve, just the ongoing mysteries of the inter-relation of people and events. It is not a mystery of cold logic, as is pointed out in the first chapter of part two by a woman speaking to the as yet unintroduced Lady Cooper:
You don’t want to see the mystery. And this place is full of mysteries, Madame. One would need a Simenon to unravel all the coincidences. . . . Pardon? Sherlock Holmes? Oh, no, Madame. Your Sherlock Holmes is a puppet made of papier mache, Madame. One could rewrite his stories to show that he always points out the wrong suspect and lets the real criminal go scot-free. No, no. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t understand a thing. Especially women. And if you don’t like Simenon, Madame, then perhaps Zola? Maupassant? Mauriac? Or, pourquoi pas? Racine? Corneille? Unless you prefer your Father Brown, Chesterton I mean, or do you find the comparison outrageous? Yet, wouldn’t he—Simenon, I mean—wouldn’t he be the best man to explain why she didn’t cry?
The coincidences from part one begin to unravel in part two. Lines are drawn between the characters. Themerson not only relates the characters in this novel but also those in his previous works. Like the threads of mystery being pulled together, Lady Cooper’s old acquaintance, the so-called Minister of Imponderabilia, finds the center of these disparate characters and events:
[Lady Cooper speaking] “. . . What is the purpose of piling up and up all those isolated irrelevancies, all those unconnected facts and people near or far if you can’t link them together, hiddenly or not.”
“But I can,” he [the Minister of Imponderabilia] said.
“No,” she said.
“Yes,” he said.
“You really mean that all those various things can be linked with something? Something definite?”
“Well, what is it? What is this mysterious something?”
“It isn’t a ’something,’ it’s ’somebody.’”
“A person?”
“Can you tell me who?”
“I can.”
“Well, who?”
“You,” he said.
In a detective story there are only three real connections between all the characters, places, and events. The first is not the victim (for we must assume the existence of red herrings or events that follow the murder), but the detective, whom we follow through the story. Then there are the world/novel, where all these things exist, and the reader (though in a way the reader and the detective are mirrors). The detective novel could be considered a system of interlocking parts that runs like a machine during the course of the reading. Similarly, The Mystery of the Sardine is a system that exists to expose to us these parts and their interaction. The world, too, is a similar system, and everyone has their own idea of how (or why) that systems works. The everyday philosophies expressed by Themerson’s characters point to the multiplicity of explanations.
“We are all trapped between the beautiful blueprints of the most perfect systems and the World that contradicts itself, the World that is ‘large and contains multitudes.’”
Naturally all these systems, of science, class, religion, mathematics, etc., are imperfect, yet people go on believing in them. And that is where we become detectives in life, piecing together the parts into a system which works for us.
Strange where a novel can lead.
“One tells stories when one must lie in order to tell the truth.”
Themerson’s novel, in its collision of the everyday and philosophic, in its strange characters and stranger coincidences, in its humor and intelligence, reminds me of the works of the great French author Raymond Queneau. Themerson is one of the few authors that can bear that comparison without harm. In the past couple of years, Dalkey Archive has republished three of his novels and all of them are worth seeking out and reading.» - Derik Badman

«The first thing I tried was a book, of course.
With the first page of Stefan Themerson’s The Mystery of the Sardine, the door opened on a man with two lives: as a writer in town, writing out of a fund of creative hatred, he sleeps brutally with his secretary between dictations; as a friendly country squire with a family he nurtures a harmless poetry habit. I thought this might be the protagonist of the mystery, but I was wrong (in a way). Soon he was dead, and his wife had met his secretary and entered in on a love-life with her that both seemed to find more fulfilling than their previous lives. They are happily installed as snaky dancers on Saturday evenings with breasts always one inch apart, in a Majorca hotel, by the end of the first chapter. And banal and bizarre continued to collide as in succeeding chapters I encountered an exploding black poodle, a boy genius with a solution for Euclid, and a sympathetic and practical Minister of Imponderabilia, among others. There is indeed a classic mystery to be solved in the book, perhaps more than one, but the most gratifying aspect of it is the book itself. Where did this salutary madness (unaccountably reminiscent of Nabokov’s Pale Fire) spring from?
Bertrand Russell said, of Themerson’s novel Bayamus, that “the highest compliment I can pay is that it is nearly as mad as the world.” Dalkey Archive publishes three of Themerson’s novels, Hobson’s Island, The Mystery of the Sardine and Tom Harris. While I’m used to the feeling that some people wouldn’t call some of our publications novels, I’ve tended to stick with the notion that despite all doubts, if they are in fact novels, then the people who wrote them must be novelists. Not true of Stefan Themerson, I discovered. For one thing, his art can’t really be separated from that of his wife, Franciszka, who illustrated his books and with whom he shared the design and planning of everything he did. And then, it wasn’t all about writing either. Stefan and Franciszka were an experimental orchestra of art-forms. Beginning with film, they worked in almost all available media (including photography and radio – I wondered what they would have done with computers? CGI?) and most fields of study too: philosophy, sociology, art history, and more.
The next doorway for me was a film. In the mostly white sitting room of the keepers of the Themerson Archive, I was left alone to watch Stefan and Franciszka, billed as a simple ten-minute documentary, followed by reconstructed sequences from remnants of the Themersons’ own films. And what unfolded was a most unorthodox introduction to a pair of lives and a fascinating elision of 20th century technological and philosophical discoveries. Before leaving Poland in 1937, Stefan and Franciszka were part of the Polish avant-garde art scene. They made experimental films using photograms and designed and edited their collective’s journal f.a. Obliged to leave Poland by the war, they came to London via Paris in 1942, where they established themselves as a one-couple counter-avant-garde, with their own publishing imprint, the Gaberbocchus Press, which together they operated by hand in their own hallway, and for which Franciszka did the design and illustrations and Stefan the writing -though this is a hopeless simplification and near-dishonest distinction to make. Together they published such classics as Barbara Wright’s translations of Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Queneau’s Exercices de Style. As well as Stefan’s books, creations including costume and theatre designs, more films, a hand-drawn opera, comic strips and lectures rolled out of their workshop.
The films showed me that my litero-centric approach was far too narrow to comprehend the Themersons’ art. People who can relate the technology of cinema to the mark a small leaf imprints on an apple’s skin as it ripens in the sun deserve a wide-open mind and the widest kind of reading.» - Sophie Lewis

«Stefan Themerson had many talents and many countries. He left his native Poland for the safety of France and left France for the safety of England during the early days of World War II. He was an accomplished writer in three languages and in addition to his writing was an inspired filmmaker. (For samples of his films, see The Mystery of the Sardine first appeared in 1986: it’s one of several Themerson works republished by Dalkey Archive Press.
The attraction of the mystery story or the detective novel has exercised a strong influence on a number of writers. Tom Stoppard, Georges Perec, Flann O’Brien and Themerson have all built references into their work or have parodied the form. In this book by Themerson the application is exuberant and wildly undisciplined. The murder takes place early in the book in the best tradition of the classic murder mystery, but we learn almost immediately who the murderer is. What we do not know, and never learn, is if the victim was the right one.
In Sardine characters emerge and fall back into the texture of the story, their stories only partially told. If they reappear, their actions are erratic as if they had undergone changes in the time they were off the stage. The effect of this is a hyperrealism that keeps the reader cautious and alive to what the author does.
The central figure of Sardine – in so far as there is one – is Jadwiga Lady Cooper. She is an illegitimate daughter of General Piesc whose career seems to have consisted largely of fathering children out of wedlock. (Piesc is the hero of another of Themerson’s novels.) Lady Cooper, as one of the other characters points out, is the link that unites all of the bizarre events in Sardine. Her connections with all the events and characters are elaborately described, but, despite all the elaborate connections, have no real bearing on anything in the book. It is, in other words, a parody of the clever summing up at the end of the conventional murder mystery. Themerson, however, places his summation in the middle of the book as one more of the disconnected elements with which Sardine is loaded. Sardine in fact is a collection of red herrings.
Throughout the novel, and giving it its title, is the young man in the brown suit. He is searching for a sardine factory and asks directions of this character or that. His actions and words indicate a man who comes from another planet, has no ability to think like a human, and has no sense of direction whatever. It turns out that he has nothing to do with the mystery and is yet another of Themerson’s constant stream of amusing jokes.
Although Themerson gives us a very prolonged exposure to Lady Cooper, the reader is ready to stay contentedly with any character or situation that Themerson serves up. And he takes us from England to a resort that appears to be in south France or possibly Spain and from there to Poland and back to England. Themerson’s treatment of the only half committed Communist government in Poland is deeply satirical.
The Mystery of the Sardine is a romp by an author whose experience and intellectual power leaves very few possibilities inaccessible to him. His experience as a cinematographer suggests that Themerson wrote Sardine as if it were a movie script. It would make a great movie of the sort where nothing is spelled out and the spectator needs to work hard to keep up with the elusive but fascinating intentions of the creator. For the reader interested in something fresh and challenging, this and Themerson’s other books are singularly satisfying.» - Bob Williams

«There are few novelists equal to the likes of Raymond Queneau. HIs ability to combine the quotidian, the fantastical, the absurd, the humorous, the philosophical, and a healthy does of linguistic play makes his work sui generis. But, if I were asked to name one novelist who might be spoken of in the same sentence, it would be Stefan Themerson. Themerson, a Polish emigré to England, is a recent discovery of mine thanks to the fine folks at Dalkey Archive, who have brought out three of his novels in as many years.
Themerson’s novels have a similar free-wheeling nature to Queneau’s works. Characters of the most disparate or often absurd kind (12 year old math geniuses, palm readers, professors, exploding poodles, philosophy professors, former sailor shopowners, and the “Minister of Imponderabilia”) proliferate in a plot that starts in chaos and moves towards order, but ends up in chaos again just as one starts to get a handle on the goings-on. Enjoyable, smart, and witty, the writing pulls one through the early confusion of stories until one is completely engrossed in untangling the mysteries (for all three novels I have read of Themerson’s are, at some level, mysteries, though never of the purely crime/detection varietal).
A clear theme to this novel eludes me on one reading. The ending comes as not only a surprise but a strong push to go back and start reading again (which I will have to do at some point soon). Even without a clear understanding of what it all amounts to, I feel no qualms about the wonderful ride that is the process of reading this novel. Themerson is a man of ideas, grand and banal, and he pulls out no stops in stuffing his book with them, as reflections on the action or the words and thoughts of the characters.
What is this particular novel about? Any summary sounds both confusing and inadequate. It begins with a well regarded writer, moves onto his wife and his secretary, then to a philosophy professor and an exploding poodle, then various characters in Majorca including a 12 year old mathematician and his palm reading mother, and well… more. The disparate cast of characters (handily listed at the front of the book) are slowly connected to each other until one could make a map of their relations which might offer some key to the novel (or not). Or perhaps the proliferation of characters and ideas and their connections is a reflection on the breadth of life itself and the connections between people, tenuous or strong.
Sometimes the most interesting works are the hardest to write about. I don’t feel that I can really say anything worthwhile about this novel except to recommend it.» - madinkbeard
Stefan Themerson, Tom Harris (Dalkey Archive Press, 2004)

«I was attracted by an ad in the last Review of Contemporary Fiction which describes it as “an outlandish, highly unconventional detective story.” That is a fairly good way of summing up the novel.
It is a lively, thoughtful novel filled with unusual (but not too unusual) characters that reminded me rather much of Queneau (without the wordplay). The main focus of the novel revolves around truth, appearances, beauty, and ethics. Not the least indication of these foci is the narrator. Have read the novel once and then went back and read parts of the beginning again, I am fairly certain that the narrator is never named. In fact, though the narrator is narrating events of his own witness and activity through the first half of the novel, he is never named, given an occupation, nor even a real relation to Tom Harris, the character who is the protagonist here (or is he?).
Plotwise the novel walks around the story of Tom Harris. It starts conventionally enough in London where the narrator is trailing two detectives who are trailing Tom Harris, just released from police questioning on suspicion of murdering his former employer. That murder is one of many mysteries that is never clearly resolved. After a chapter, the novel jumps forward twenty-five years to the early 60’s. The narrator, travelling in Italy and after a number of coincidences, becomes again embroiled in Tom Harris’ story. Though halfway through those events are resolved, the narrator is left with three notebooks of Tom’s, which he reads but then sends back. The second half of the novel consists of three attempts (two short, one quite substantial) of the narrator trying to reconstruct the notebooks in (re)written form.
Half the novel, though written in the first person pronoun is actually filtered through the unnamed narrator. By the end of the novel we are right back to the beginning with Tom followed by the detectives followed by the narrator. This circularity is another place where Queneau seems influential (Le Chiendent has a very similar beginning/ending circularity involving one character observing another). Besides Queneau, the novel also reminded me very much of Paul Auster (though obviously Auster is post-Themerson) with it’s multitude of coincidences, detective ambiance, and the set-up of one friend trying to figure out another (The Locked Room and Leviathan come to mind).
The narrator as he tries to reconstruct Tom’s life, early on admits the futility of the classic empirical detective approach:
“I realized how futile my empirical efforts were bound to be. I couldn’t see things as he had, the same beer must have tasted different in his mouth, the same four corners of his room must have looked different to him…”
“…on the whole it seemed to me that we don’t do things on account of something or other, but we just do them and look for a reason afterwards, and there are always many reasons to choose from, so we pick one up…”
He puts his reconstruction into doubt, yet, in the end, we never have more than the narrator’s story to believe. A number of other reviewers or commentators says that the novel is about Tom Harris’s identity, but in the end, the real mystery belongs to the narrator.
I’d never previously heard of Themerson, so I did a little searching around and found little (my blog, simple because it was listed as my current read, was in the top 10 google hits for the novel):
Nicholas Wadley’s “Reading Stefan Themerson” from Context 16 which also appears as the introduction to the novel, but oddly and unfortunately says nothing about the novel itself.
The Themerson Archive which has some information on Themerson and his wife (an artist), including their press Gaberbocchus Press, which published the first English translation of Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Queneau. The Ubu Roi was later available from New Directions in a facsimile and is quite amusing (I found a copy years ago at a used bookstore) as it is hand lettered by Barbara Wright the translator and there are drawings on the page and over the text by Franciszka Themerson.
From David Ian Paddy’s review of Exact Change’s release of Bayamus & Cardinal Polatuo: Two Novels (Review of Contemporary Fiction 19.3 (Fall 1999): 159):
“In Bayamus the narrator follows a man with three legs to the Theatre of Anatomy and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry. The latter is the novel’s true destination, where its real concern is explored. Semantic poets insist on clear thinking and the need to free poetic words of vague and multiple associations. To do this the poet must replace each questionable word with the more precise phrasing of a dictionary definition. This method of substitution feels notably Oulipian, and, fittingly enough, Themerson’s semantic rendition of “Taffy was a Welshman” has been included in Mathews and Brotchie’s Oulipo Compendium.”
Somehow it always comes back to the Oulipo even when I don’t mean it to!» -madinkbeard

«At times in his life, Tom Harris is a dull schoolboy, an apprentice barber, a delinquent husband, an old man with a monkey who drinks at the Green Man Pub, "il professore Harris" at the University of Genoa, and possibly a murderer. But the question of who the elusive Tom Harris really is, and what crimes he has really committed, obsesses the narrator of this novel.
Tom Harris can perhaps be described as a sort of philosophical detective story, ingeniously plotted and wittily told with a stylistic virtuosity on par with the most playful works of Raymond Queneau.»

«Stefan Themerson had a literary life in each of the three countries in which he found himself – Poland, France and England. A man of many talents and interests, he brought to his novels a distinctive intellectual discipline that made each of them a journey of philosophical discovery. His career as thinker, cinematographer and artist is covered in the introduction by Nicholas Wadley. This novel was originally published in 1967 and is one of nine novels by him, He wrote two more novels after Tom Harris before his death in 1988.
The eponymous hero of the book first appears as he travels as the head of a discreet parade. He is a murder suspect in the death of his former employer and two detectives follow him. The narrator follows the detectives. Harris tries unsuccessfully to see his former wife. On his way back, now more or less in custody of the detectives, he stops at a pet store and buys a monkey. The narrator’s position in this situation – along with much else – is not clear and the reader is left to do what he or she can.
The plot is one of rambling inconsequence and the use of impossible coincidences at first astonishes, then annoys and finally intrigues the reader. Themerson’s somewhat distant model is Raymond Chandler and he uses him with wit and a tender regard. After one impossible confluence of events, one character blandly tells another “Bit of a coincidence when you come to think about it.” Well, yes usually but not in this book.
Tom Harris, in the first of its two parts, examines some of Harris’s past but it is mostly concerned with an unruly and vivid group of men and women, who, however inherently good – or at least human – threaten each other with great evil. The resolution (in which all obvious impending injury is exhausted by a gratuitous occurrence) leaves the narrator with three notebooks that belong to and were written by Tom Harris. Chivalrously, the narrator returns them unread to their owner. But, obsessed with Harris, he sets himself the task of reconstructing their contents. He succeeds to his satisfaction on the third attempt and in this reconstruction we supposedly learn more of the early career of their “writer.”
How plausible is the narrator’s reconstruction and whom does it more reveal, Harris or the narrator? These questions are not relevant artistically. In the very act of this impossible reconstruction the narrator implies that there are more truths, or more validities, than one. As the progressively involved text develops it carries us full-circle to Harris, trailed by the police, trailed by the narrator. Harris’s thoughts – or those of the narrator – show a man in thrall to, or possibly liberated by his experience of, metaphysical anguish.
A novel with such a theme and with such an aversion to a realistic acceptance of conventional fictional mechanisms should be difficult to read. In a lesser writer it would be but Themerson’s skill far exceeds his self-imposed difficulties and as a virtuoso of the impish his book succeeds on a multitude of levels. It will certainly appeal to all readers weary of the simplistic, the safe and the banal.» - Bob Williams

«Successful novelists are impresarios. I choose the word "impresario" deliberately, rather than "theatre director", for instance, because of its connotations of old-school music hall theatre and indeed rather hard-headed commercialism (oh, and by "successful", I mean of course successful in achieving the objective of the writing, even if that objective be abstract or unknown to the author, rather than any commercial consideration). Reading Evelyn Waugh’s rationale for killing off Sibthorp, the thunder-box owning novelist-as-impresario may seem an unusual, even irrelevant comparison for an avant-garde or experimental or modernist writer. Yet the successful writer of experimental fiction will have more in common with the old-fashioned creator of "well-made" novels than one might think.
Tom Harris has the form of a detective story, one that consistently throws the reader off kilter, does not allow complacency or certainty, yet a detective story nevertheless. A detective thriller, even. A detective story that suddenly breaks down, for this is a book of two halves, the second very different from the first. Some questions are answered but most aren’t. This is no classic whodunnit, partly because we don’t quite know whatwozit in the first place. The
We begin with an unnamed, unknown narrator, recounting the time in 1938 he waited outside Paddington Station where the eponymous Harris was being interrogated. Why? And why do his interrogators let him go, to take the train to a small village where Harris has a mysterious encounter with a woman and her lover - followed by the narrator and two detectives? We don’t find out, at least not at this early stage. On his return to London, Harris manages to purchase a monkey and to break the invisible barrier between himself, the men trailing him, and our narrator.
Next we are in Milan, Spring 1963, and our narrator is on a train. Opposite an older man and a younger woman canoodled - "to me, they looked refreshing. Especially as just the day before, a young Italian poet, whose father owned a cinema and whose sister was a teacher, had sighed and said his grandfather was the happiest of us all: a peasant in Calabria. This remark whetted my appetite for any human being that looked happy; all in vain … til I saw them." We soon discover this happiness is illusory too. This is one of the recurrent themes of the book - the disparity between appearance and reality, in the most everyday way. Why do we see some faces as "noble", "honest", "kind" etc. and others as their opposites? Mirrors, appearances, beauty, truth, goodness - all are in the mix. Harris himself is a detective, a self-appointed one whose mission is to discover the truth behind appearances. Or is it?
This is to jump ahead, to mix the detective story style plot with the later metaphysical speculations of Tom Harris. Perhaps this jumping ahead is appropriate. The rest of part one is an enjoyable read, an immersion into a world of passion and intrigue, set in Northern Italy around the time of the death of Pope John XXIII. Part two consists of attempted reconstructions by the narrator of Tom Harris’ notebooks. The stream-of-consciousness of Harris’ notebooks (or rather, our narrator's reconstruction of those, we think) would not be nearly as effective without the intrigue of the first section. As it is, Tom Harris’ thoughts are fascinating, irritating, sometimes a little boring, answering some of the questions posed by the first half of the book but by no means all or many.
Tom Harris, we learn eventually, was a working class boy, "a dull boy", who had exactly the kind of face people expect to be coarse and stupid, who rather liked being thought dull because people tended to leave one alone and therefore drifted out of school into hairdressing. He stole an encyclopaedia once which becomes the foundation for his transformation into an autodidact. His thought processes, as represented in the reconstruction, have the fascinating, tangential, somewhat obsessional quality that the self-educated often have. There is also a consciousness of the class system which is testament to Stefan Themerson’s observation.
A few words on the author, one who is largely unknown but has his knot of devoted devotees. Themerson was Polish, who during the First World War lived in Russia with his parents before returning to Poland after the Revolution. He began and then abandoned studies in physics and architecture, but left both to devote himself to avant garde film making. In 1938 he moved to Paris and thence to London. He successively wrote in Polish, French and English. Like his compatriot Conrad, his achievement in not merely mastering but excelling in a foreign tongue is humbling. And in some respects, while Conrad’s English always bore a somewhat French, abstracted stamp, Themerson has the demotic quality of Harris’ inner monologue and of English discourse down perfectly. You can believe that the younger Harris is a man of the Thirties, while the narrator is one of the early Sixties. Themerson and his wife founded and ran Gaberbocchus Press, whose mission was to produced "best-lookers rather than best-sellers" and published Jarry and Queneau in translation. Gaberbocchus became a sort of collective at which artists, scientists, philosophers and others could meet and discuss common ground. Tom Harris and the unnamed narrator, as well as other characters, reflect these preoccupations, and there is an eerily predictive quality to some of the discussion of neural nets and what sounds like chaos theory.
From a literary point of view, the experimental features seem necessary and organic to the story. There is experimentation, there are games played with narration, with characters overlapping - but none seems like a literary game. The detective thriller touches suit the theme, just as the stream of consciousness does. Perhaps the most salient characteristic of the novelist-as-impresario is that you cannot see the joins, that the work seems as logical and necessary as a theorem. Tom Harris amply succeeds on those terms. Even if, reading purely hedonistically, the latter stages in which we enter Harris’ febrile, disjointed, creative and rather sad thought-world are harder work than the elegant, William Gerhardiesque world of absurdity and chaos of the first part, it is worth persisting with. Part of me wonders if the whole was written in the style of the first half, would it have been overall more successful as a novel - but perhaps then Harris’ mind would never have been unveiled for the reader. Bertrand Russell - who struck up an epistolary friendship with Themerson in the last years of his life - described another novel of Themerson’s as "nearly as mad as the world." Tom Harris - the novel - is nearly as chaotic and exciting and sad and lonely as life.» - Seamus Sweeney
Stefan Themerson, Hobson's Island (Dalkey Archive Press, 2005)

«Hobson's Island (so called because Mr. Hobson bought it, or did Mr. Hobson buy it because it was so called?) enjoyed decades of isolation in the Atlantic Ocean. For years, the caretakers lived there peacefully, with only a cow for company and an empty house to care for. But all is suddenly disrupted when a wave of unusual visitors arrive: a deposed African king fleeing a revolution, a Hobson descendant claiming ownership, government agents eyeing the nation-less real estate, and scientists looking to test a dangerous new invention.
In typical Themerson fashion, the comic is wound up with the serious and let go to devastating effect. A clever and apt parodying of Cold War power plays and twisted science, Hobson's Island is a strangely touching, sympathetic, and emotional account of the families and individuals brought together and broken up by Hobson's Island.»

«A small refuge against modernity gets overtaken by history in this meditative fable of ideas. The legacy of an eccentric American billionaire who deeded it to a philanthropic Swiss trust, tiny Hobson's Island in the eastern Atlantic is inhabited only by a caretaker family and their cow. But, like any Hobson's choice, the island's opt-out alternative proves illusory. Decades of idyllic isolation end when representatives of imperialism and the military-industrial complex descend on the island: an exiled African dictator, his handlers in British intelligence, French agents assigned to keep an eye on the British agents, a descendant of the island's original owner who intends to turn it into a resort or an American naval base, and scientists seeking a testing ground for a germ-warfare experiment. Published in the U.K. just before Themerson's death in 1988 (this is the first American edition), the novel has a distinctly pre-1989 feel, with an apocalyptic mood lit by flashes of absurdist humor and a slightly dated concern with Cold War-style power intrigue. But the geopolitics are secondary to Themerson's preoccupations with ethics, religion, science and the impossibility of representing reality in language, which he often explores through characters' ruminative streams-of-consciousness. Fortunately, the novel's engaging story, sympathetic characters and rueful tone help lighten its philosophical weight.» - Publishers Weekly

«Renaissance man Themerson-an artist and filmmaker who ran a publishing house and wrote novels, children's books, poems, plays, operas, and philosophical essays-died in 1988, the year his final book, Hobson's Island, was released in the United Kingdom. Now, 17 years later, this first U.S. edition brings his wry humor, humane vision, and political critique to American readers. The absurd story, about an incestuous family living on a remote island, is an allegory about imperialism, conquest, loyalty, and family ties. International power plays are presented in near-farcical terms as we witness the unseating of an African king as well as the testing of chemical weapons poised to destroy the planet. While political themes are exaggerated to highlight the insanity of post-Cold War jockeying, human relationships-those between husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, and employers and employees-are rendered with deep compassion. Themerson seems to have believed in regular folks, if not their leaders. As the novel's Princess Zuppa says, "God is not the only thing one can believe in. One can believe in decency» -Eleanor J. Bader

«Power politics and metaphysical paradoxes dominate this free-range comic parable, a 1988 novel by the late Polish-born British author. Themerson, who also wore the hats of physicist, architect and filmmaker, takes readers on a merry ride increasingly reminiscent of the loose plot of Shakespeare's The Tempest. It begins when French computer reps rescue the embattled "monarch" (actually "not so much a dethroned king as a deposed president of an African republic") from revolutionary assassins, and sell him-for 78 bottles of wine-to itinerant "Consul" Plain-Smith, skipper of the good ship Resurrection. Renamed (at his request) Dr. Archibald Janson, the king/president disappears for many, many pages, after we've learned that he's the half-brother of Italy's Princess Zuppa, and that the eponymous island (off Ireland's west coast) where he'll be given sanctuary was formerly owned by eccentric multimillionaire Thomas Hobson, and is presently inhabited by the family of its late caretakers' incestuous siblings. There's much more: the stories of pacifist stockbroker Sean D'Eath's troubled relationship with his son Adam, an atheist scientist devoted to producing WMDs; a mysterious corporation perhaps planning to employ Hobson's Island as a weapons cache and/or nuclear waste dump; a punk teenaged girl's romance with a great writer's son, whose mind has been disturbed by reading Samuel Beckett; and interpolated speculations about "the mystery of the body"-its stubborn survival instinct's conflict with its natural momentum toward death. The story's structure is anything but shapely, yet Themerson's characters woolgather memorably (e.g., wondering whether "God" is a noun or a verb), and issuesof conquest and exploitation are ingeniously linked to marriage and parenthood, global politics, biblical history and unenforceable natural law. If Richard Feynman, Flann O'Brien, Raymond Queneau and Dario Fo had ever gotten together, it might have been on Hobson's Island.» - Kirkus Reviews

«The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson DVD booklet (2007)»

«Reading Stefan Themerson» by Nicholas Wadley

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