Martin Bax, The Hospital Ship, New Directions, 1976.
...the most exciting, stimulating and brilliantly conceived book I have read since Burroughs' novels.
—J. G. Ballard
Out of Martin Bax’s appalling vision of contemporary civilization in collapse sails The Hospital Ship. The British author’s first novel is the account of an atomic-powered ark attempting to salvage a "remnant" from a world whose recent wars have resulted in the total loss of both social and individual stability. At first, skilled medical teams from the ironically named ship, the Hopeful, pick up casualties from what seem to be local incidents. But as the crew treats these victims of mass psychosis––intensely withdrawn men and women, autistic children––all signs point toward a world-wide disaster. Psychiatrist Sir Maximov Flint joins the ship and introduces his own solution––love therapy. His two prize patients are V, a Saigon prostitute, and W, a demoralized Wall Street broker––each a casualty of twentieth-century madness. On shore, the holocaust spreads. Landing parties discover in port after port whole populations of men crucified by quiet, neatly dressed Westerners. Forced to retreat from carnage so vast that the medical team can be of no use, the hospital ship sails on––a tiny, heroic vestige of humanity at the fringes of global catastrophe. Forming an integral part of the story, but also in wry counterpoint to it, are verbatim extracts from medical and financial papers and French accounts of a war-torn Indochina. With sardonic wisdom, Bax allows the scientific, business, and military establishments to indict themselves.
The doctors, specialists, sailors, and patients of the titular vessel in Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship are afloat in their own greenzone of sorts, a moving compound that seeks to treat the troubled world. What’s the trouble with the world? No one’s sure, exactly–there’s permanent all-out-war, of course, famine perhaps, insanity for sure. There’s also a bizarre army of bureaucrats going from continent to continent crucifying men and raping women for no clear reason. The ship’s psychiatrists diagnose it “The Crucifixion Disease.” Euan, Bax’s erstwhile lead, tries to figure out how to love and how to heal in the middle of hate and extinction. Aided by the eccentric, Falstaffian Dr. Maximov Flint, Euan conducts an experimental therapy between a Moi prostitute named V and a suicidal Wall Street broker named W. He also finds a lover and partner in an American girl named Sheila. About half of The Hospital Ship comprises citations from a variety of non-fiction texts, including medical textbooks, psychiatric studies, sociology texts, travelogues, war diaries, and more. The technique is bizarre and jarring, and Bax often imitates the style of such texts, most of which linger on sex or death. There’s also an obsession with the Vietnam War, which makes sense as the book was published in 1976. There’s a lovey-hippie type vibe to the hospital ship’s personnel, and like Atwood with her Gardeners, Bax is satirical and loving to his heroes at the same time. He mocks some of the silly idealism of the movement even as he finds solace in their vision of love and healing in an apocalyptic world. Bax’s book is wholly weird, disconnected, lurching and farcical, a madcap dystopian Love Boat on peyote. I spotted it at my favorite used bookstore, intrigued first by the (now retro-)futurist font, then the name, echoing Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, another book about a hospital-as-ark. If the black-and-white collage cover art didn’t seal the deal, then the blurb from J.G. Ballard comparing Bax favorably to William Burroughs did. Burroughs is an appropriate reference point, with the sexual alienation and the medical flavor and the cut-up technique and all, but Bax’s writing is utterly Ballardian (he even directly cites Ballard among other authors–like, you know APA style in-text citations). The Hospital Ship is a cult novel which might not have a big enough cult. It definitely belongs in print again; until then, pick up a copy if you can find one. - biblioklept.org/
The Lure. A nuclear powered hospital ship with a giant morgue. “THEY ARE CRUCIFYING US.” Love therapy. Will you move from your fetal position?
First, musical equivalencies. Francis Dhomont, a French composer of electroacoustic / acousmatic music, stitched together the compositions of his students and friends to form the Frankenstein Symphony (1997). This act of creative compilation, compiling previously gathered and arranged found sounds, brought forth, in his words, “[a] little acousmatic monster which I hold particularly close to my heart.”
For the composer, each musical fragment indicates a personal connection, the weaving together creates a tapestry of his intellectual progeny. For the listener, we are presented with an aura of familiar sound that has been manipulated, modified, recombined, while the personal connections must be uncovered.
Although comprised of previously composed sections, Dhomont’s behemoth was not the product of some passive scissors snipping, but rather a creative enterprise of the highest order (note 1).
An amalgamate of stimulation. In a world convulsing with the paroxysms of ennui and angst, Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship (1976) sails with intense abandon through similar conceptual waters. A key component of the novel’s structure and purpose concerns the mechanics of Bax’s inspiration—quotations from medical texts (among others) contain the research for particular narrative sequences and in turn help explain their contents and citations from stories and poems published in his own literary journal supply/inspire associated scenes.
Bax overtly situates himself as a descendant of the avant-garde literary journal Ambit that he founded in 1959 (and continues to this day). The journal is well known for its radical artistic expression across genres—for example, Bax published Ballard’s 1966 shocker “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race.”
And now let us plunge in….
Brief Analysis/Plot Summary
As with so many stories of the period, the wrecked landscape manifests the internal (and external) trauma afflicting the human race—from the war zones of Vietnam to the board rooms in the halls of capitalism. The nuclear powered hospital ship Hopeful journeys the world’s seas, crewed by intrepid doctors and psychiatrists with radical new theories of the therapeutic qualities of drug facilitated love. The world outside remains oblique, the cause of the catastrophe in the realm of theory and conjecture. The patients they encounter can only bemoan their own state and provide cryptic answers. The morgue fills and fills: the bodies in death achieving “an intimacy […] which some had never achieved in their lives” (37).
The traumatized fill the wards. Euan runs to and fro caring for the ill. The staff delve into the theories of Sir Maximov: “only use drugs, Euan, to make your patients accessible to human contact. If they are accessible allow them some tears, some emotion, to withstand the strains and stresses of the past and future” 144).
Euan’s takes on two patients who embody the forces that drive mankind inside itself: V. from Saigon, struggling with war trauma from life in Vietnam and “The Man from the West,” an American business man possessed by another form of ennui. And slowly they start talking to one another.
The crew itself manifests a schizophrenic streak. The communications officer Tafteria, plagued by a chronic shortage of pins, places in no particular order the messages she receives on a bulletin board. The wind blows the messages throughout the ship: “and anyone in the stern of the ship could reach out a hand and collect bulletins from the air as they are driven by an endless paper-chase over the stern of the boat and on into the sea” (15). Tafteria mishears the messages as well—“THEY ARE USING US” (90) really means “THEY ARE CRUCIFYING US” (117). And they (whoever they might be) really are—the crucified litter the shores. The doctors can only wander around the bodies, perplexed. And there are others, the psychiatrist Kline and his patient Coma who can see the devastation of the future rather than some suffering in her past. Kline, in overtly satirical strokes, takes on his patient’s anguish via a Fruedian “phenomenon of transference” (80) while she mellows and adores him.
As the vessel moves along the devastated coasts, the relationship between V and “The Man from the West,” although ultimately inconclusive, grows and grows, and they experience the therapeutic joys of intimacy and connection….
The Hospital Ship is filled to the brim with both fascinating ideas and audacious compositional techniques. What will strike the reader immediately is the influence of Bax’s training as a doctor (note 2). The authoritative lens brings a jarring realism as he renders his profession with poetic strokes. That said, I will focus on two elements that particularly resonated with me: intellectual genealogy mentioned above and the use of quotations (far more interesting than it sounds).
“Euan was reminded of MacBeth’s attempt years before to describe this event with his sinister poem game ‘Fin du Globe’ (1963) in which complex and meaningless postcards had been presented from all over the world” (117)
Let us unpack one of many examples of intellectual genealogy that occurs in the novel. Above is a reference within the narrative section to George MacBeth’s poem that appeared in Bax’s Ambit in 1963. A character within the story is reminded of a poem that appeared in the author’s own publication. In a way Euan’s connection to the poem game is Bax charting one of numerous sources of inspiration for a central idea in the story, the inexplicable crucifixion disease heralded by the message sent across the airways without explanation: “THEY ARE CRUCIFYING US.” J.G. Ballard’s stories are also cited in conjunction with particular scenes. While reading we see the ingredients and the end product, and the characters within the story exist as various agents moving throughout, observing the stages of their creation.
Bax’s use of quoted texts, which gain meaning through association with other quoted texts and the novel’s narrative portions, is the most ingenious (and challenging) element of the novel (see note 2). Quoted texts make up around a third of the novel and are not cited (but a list is provided at the beginning). The range demonstrates Bax’s medical training and other reading habits: from K. Kräupl Taylor’s “Behavior Patterns of Groups” in The Pathogenesis of War (1963), ed. Margaret Penrose to The Robber Barons (1934) by Matthew Josephson.
Here’s a rather silly (but simple) example os how this technique works. Euan and Sir Maxinov have a half-thought out discussion on political philosophy (from a distinctly medical viewpoint) and Sir Maxinov remembers a passage from school: “Aristotle reports that the Egyptians put them to good use. They made their bow-strings from the penises of dead camels” (156). The narrative stops immediately followed by three pages of quotes about the genitals of various animals. Often the implications are far more profound. V, the woman from Saigon, tells her story to The Man from the West. Her harrowing exposition takes on additional meaning by association with various quotations from books describing Vietnam’s pre-War landscape and the atrocities instigated by American soldiers.
The final assemblage is not to be missed by fans of 70s J.G. Ballard and New Wave SF more generally. Lacking perhaps Ballard’s poignancy, The Hospital Ship still traverses distinct and alluring waters. Bax’s medical training and profession imbue the post-apocalyptical uncertainty with a veneer of certitude (note 5). An intertextual onion à la Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972)… - Joachim Boaz https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/07/20/book-review-the-hospital-ship-martin-bax-1976/
Martin Bax, Memoirs of a Gone World, Salt Publishing, 2010.
This collection of witty, sexually-charged stories takes the reader through four decades of world events, including our present day banking crisis. In stories that are at times surreal, Martin Bax introduces us to the private world of a variety of memorable characters who find themselves in often bizarre and compromising circumstances: copulating couples and naked wrestlers weave their unforgettable tales alongside the heartbreaking experience of Jewish childhood evacuation. Charged with dry humour and sexual drama, these stories show Martin Bax at the peak of his form.
'Memoirs of a Gone World' is a collection of fifteen adventurous and unsettling stories. The first story 'The Turned-in, Broken-up World' begins with the memorable lines, 'It was Caroline who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when his penis broke off at the root. The affair had been a casual one.'
The stories in this collection are eclectic; there is something old-fashioned and romantic about 'Le Magasin De Gants', while 'Second Out of the Ring' is both filthy and funny. 'When Childhood Ends' is my favourite story. It is a beautifully written account of Jewish child Pierre's evacuation after the Germans enter Brussels during the Second World War. The story arcs perfectly, beginning and ending with images of childhood play and toy soldiers. - Carys
I suspect this is Martin Bax’s most personal book yet, and as such is full of surprises for anyone who wonders what really goes on inside the mind of an Editor (for the last 50 years) of one of Britain’s greatest literary magazines, Ambit.
Here is the incredible first few sentences: “It was Caroline who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when his penis broke off at the root. The affair had been a casual one…”
Martin Bax has led a remarkable and fascinating life, met some extraordinary people, and has the wit, insight and command of words to relate snippets of that life in a way that is blissfully entertaining. Not that this collection of short stories, is all autobiographical, who’s to say after all, and why should that matter. But the classic stance of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” yields here a certain melancholy, an enduring lust for life (and women!), and I dare I say it in this cynical age: a touch of that unfashionable stranger, sentimentality.
Yes, Martin Bax is a (unexpected) romantic at heart, and throughout these stories there is a pleasurable sense of life as a wonderful game at which even more fun might have been had, and perhaps it can still, through the art of artful recollection.
Some of these stories are, frankly, masterpieces, like “When Childhood Ends” which brilliantly explores the poignant and surreal metaphor of a Jewish boy playing with his soldier collection even as the real thing marches into Brussels to destroy his world (and so many others) forever, during World War Two. And “The Bells Are Ringing” in which we are reminded how the reality of the classic “brief extra-marital affair on business trip” is as much about sadness and wistfulness, as it is about supposedly exciting sex.
There are some stylistic wild cards here: like “Le Magasin des Gants” (bodice-ripper) and “Jump Up and Down Your Majesty” (dadaistic stage play) that show an eclectic mind of startling range. “A Trip To Dublin” is too hilariously eccentric to be anything other than utterly true. Then perhaps at times, in stories like “Beds” or “In The Commonplace Rooms” the stories read so much like diary entries, are filled with so much (one suspects) real-life detail, that they may not be considered by some people as high-flown “Literary Fiction” in that Booker-Prize-baiting sense. But who cares. Their loss is our gain.
Here is a book filled with honesty and the straightforward need to communicate simple anecdotes, exquisite slices of life, without the sauce of style or fashion. Martin Bax has made his reputation long since, to those of us who value his unique place in British literary culture. He doesn’t need to impress, only to relate. And that is the true art of storytelling, from which we all, old or young, can still learn from a book this good. Its foundations are sound, its messages authentic, the pleasure in its reading: timeless. - douglasthompson.wordpress.com/
The gone world goes in the first story in this collection (The Turned-in, Broken-up and Gone World), not because of a nuclear winter or the sea-rise of global warming, but through a tilt in the laws of thermodynamics. Increasing entropy trumps everything, and as a result human bodies break down into simple molecules, carbon dioxide, water, some phosphate.... All of this is startlingly introduced in the story's opening lines:"It was Caroline who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when his penis broke off at the root."
But more startling still is the way Bax then continues, calmly detailing Caroline's past and generally giving the impression that a broken penis is just one significant facet of a sexual encounter, no more or less important than any other.
The same relaxed, distant, almost Mandarin, tone pervades the rest of the book. It works better in some stories than others. In the case of The Turned-in, there is no final explanation as to why the world fell apart, or any clue why the likes of Caroline and the narrator survived. By the end of the story's emotionless narration you suspect the gone world went because of its inhabitants' lack of interest - in anything. The same kind of problem affects Journeyings, in which the matching, related dreams of a man and his lover are described. The dreams unravel pointlessly, to a pointless end and tell us nothing about the two dreamers (who are described so little they are less people than ideas). The overall impression is that of a writer who has become bored with conventional reality, but is too tired to replace it with anything better.
But when Bax sticks - more or less - to the real world he is more successful, and at its best this collection both raises expectations and then successfully delivers. Bax has an easy, authoritative writing style, and a knack of producing openings that ask for, and bring about, the reader's involvement ("A man has placed a hat on the shelving where we want to put our drinks,", "'You can practice describing the scenery,' you said as we parted,"). More often than not involvement is rewarded, as Bax's eclectic mind switches both location and approach as he takes us from the Paris of Toulouse Lautrec (Le Magasin des Gants) and a countess finding a chance encounter has drawn her back to a sexually-charged period of her youth, to a British V.I.P. in India (Your Hands do not Permit an Attachment), on the edge of sexual involvement but finding India throwing back at him his lack of connection to the world. The official function/conference-attending bird of passage appears here twice more, in America (The Bells are Ringing) and in A Trip to Dublin, and you wonder if he represents Bax's ideal life: the opportunity for cool observation and chance sex, the freedom from attachments.
However, while Bax's tone is cool and dry, his impulses are often playful. For instance in the wonderful Seconds Out, Henry Jones, bored of his life, bored of his wife, stumbles on a rogue TV channel where two naked wrestlers (one male, one female) face off with the aim being, "to induce a state approaching orgasm in one's opponent so that he or she begged to be taken." The end of this very short story is pitch perfect.
And then right at the finish Bax plays it straight. In Brussels during World War Two (When Childhood Ends) Pierre leaves his toys on the floor as the Germans enter the city. Later he's evacuated to his cousins in the country. All of this is seen through his child's POV, with the result that we only realise Pierre is Jewish when his cousins' house is daubed with whitewash stars. The power of the story comes not from what Bax shows us but what he doesn't. We have just glimpses: Pierre's mother with a Star of David pinned to her coat. And in the end we have Pierre himself as a serious - possibly joyless - young man, and as the story circles back to its beginning, we see not toy soldiers on the floor but the corpse of a childhood.
So what to do with Martin Bax? Apart from reading him, perhaps we should bury one copy of the collection in a time capsule. And then long after the balloon goes up, when whatever aliens have eventually come to pick over our bones, they will find this - a testament, both to the on-going peculiarity of the gone world and to one of its most singular minds. - Mithran Somasundrum
Martin Bax, Love on the Borders, Seren Books, 2006.
Innovative, erudite and enormously entertaining, Love on the Borders is the work of a unique literary mind: wideranging, encyclopaedic, insightful and enormously readable, it follows spirited 40-something Celestine as she walks the length of Offa’s Dyke - the ancient earthwork which traces the boundary between England and Wales - and recalls past passions, conjuring up discarded lovers and imagining what might have been.
An immensely engaging story of love, lust and the power of the imagination, Love on the Borders is also a brilliantly sustained - and highly topical - meditation on the subject of borders in its broadest sense, as Bax’s heroine travels the world, as well as the Dyke itself - from Zimbabwe to Jerusalem, from New York to Celestine’s childhood India (setting of her mother’s appaling murder).
Woven into the narrative, with consummate skill, are fascinating anecdotes and digressions, as well as quotations from a lifetime’s reading - including, pivotally, Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, a work which exists in a different kind of borderland altogether, and which, as the novel progresses, assumes increasingly sinister significance...
Love on the Borders is a novel about Britain, its relationship to the wider world and to its constituent parts; about borders and the conflicts they engender and play host to; about the body and its passions, and the liberating powers of the imagination. Audacious, compelling and utterly original, Love on the Borders - and especially Celestine herself - will capture readers’ hearts and stimulate their minds.
AMBITIOUS OUTSIDER: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMBIT EDITOR MARTIN BAX
Martin Bax is a British consultant paediatrician, who, in addition to his medical career, founded the Arts magazine Ambit in 1959. He lives in London and continues to practise, and edit Ambit, along with Kate Pemberton and Geoff Nicholson. Since he created it, Ambit has published poetry, prose and artwork from the likes of Fleur Adcock, Peter Porter, Tennessee Williams, J. G. Ballard, Eduardo Paolozzi and many others.
His first published novel was The Hospital Ship published by Cape and New Directions in 1976. More recently Love on the Borders was published by Seren in 2005. In the 1970s using text from The Hospital Ship he developed the Vietnam Symphony with jazz trumpeter Henry Lowther and this was performed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and subsequently on BBC Radio 3. He has also written for children and his book Edmund went Far Away was published in the US and the UK.