Rebirth of the Flesh

Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

Reinscribing a text which, in its own time, had minimal circulation can be a tricky procedure: expectations are high, as are the stakes in the critical game when alternative histories and traditions are hypothesized. Gregory Betts’ presentation of Solomon Barney Allen’s debut novel, They Have Bodies, now published as part of the admirable Editing Modernism in Canada project, is a case in point. “Allen’s novel was disappeared”—as Betts puts it in his very informative introduction (xii)—seized by the Toronto police on obscenity charges soon after its publication in 1929, and, in effect, erased from the history of Canadian literature. The deliberate violence to the novel is made clear by the editor when he calls They Have Bodies “the first sacrificial entry of the Canadian literary avant-garde” (xliv).

Betts is ideally suited to the task of resurrecting and re-examining Allen’s suppressed text. A poet himself, he is the author of Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (2013), and he has prepared several critical editions of Canadian modernist works, including the poetry of Raymond Knister as well as Bertram Brooker’s short fiction and essays. Betts’ work can be seen in the context of a broader, revisionist trend in studies of modernism and modernity, where hegemonic conceptualizations of phenomena such as the avant-garde are reconsidered and pluralized. Allen’s novel receives a meticulous treatment, with an extensive critical introduction, a set of explanatory notes, and an appraisal of textual emendations. Not the least impressive accomplishment here is the reconstruction—from scant sources—of the writer’s life, such that his intriguing personality is thrown sharply into focus.

It is in the context of the 1920s avant-garde, Betts argues, that They Have Bodies ought to be read: as a work ahead of its time in terms of both political thrust and formal daring, unmatched in the Canadian context until the advent of Elizabeth Smart, Sheila Watson, or Leonard Cohen in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, respectively. As Betts demonstrates, the act of censorship by the Toronto police, affording the writer no legal means of defending his work, both deprived the Canadian modernist tradition of a milestone and considerably blunted the edge of Allen’s literary innovation. Although he went on to publish three more novels—The Woman’s Doctor (1933), Toronto Doctor (1949), and The Gynecologist (1965)—his diminished career turned out to be, as Betts declares, “a nearly forty-year progression from avant-garde experimentation to commercial pulp romance” (xxv).

As per the title, Allen’s novel focuses on carnality, and more precisely on the social consequences of unbridled passion in the sanctimonious upper class, represented by the intertwined families of the Gilberts and the Taylors. In short, the set of wealthy, smug Torontonians emerge from the sex scandal at the novel’s centre practically unscathed, leaving behind them a trail of victims—young women who work as housemaids and secretaries. The Gilberts and Taylors are the sort that F. Scott Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby as “careless people”: those who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness . . . and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (179). Betts is right to point out that They Have Bodies is, perhaps most of all, a bitter satire on Toronto’s upper crust, unmasking “systemic abuse of power . . . [and] a culture of normalized sexual harassment” (xii). With God, Law, and Money on their side (the inclusion of a bishop, a justice, and a businessman in one family is a telling detail), they are bound to triumph.

The clout which Betts ascribes to They Have Bodies, however, is due also to its formal aspects: the ubiquitous ellipses (or, in Betts’ phrasing, “extreme punctuation” [xi]), the abrupt shifts in perspective and “dialogic indeterminacy” (151), the loosening of grammatical categories, and the extensive use of the interior monologue. Allen’s novel is an early example of the influence of Ulysses—which at the time, as the editor reminds us, was still banned in Canada, and would remain so for another twenty years. Yet, having established Joyce’s modern odyssey as a reference point, Betts is right not to insist upon too close a relationship between the two works, and, instead, to link They Have Bodies more broadly to Freudian psychoanalysis (itself, of course, an important intellectual component of the modernist project). Ultimately, it is a popular version of Freudianism— with its well-disseminated categories of libido, repression, and sublimation, its linking of the sexual and the social—which is dominant in They Have Bodies, and which seems to propel Allen’s subsequent novels. I believe that it is precisely this narrowing and intensification of focus which, despite the shared obscenity charges, makes Allen’s debut ultimately quite unlike Ulysses. Betts also convincingly argues for Canadian parallels in the modern-realist paradigm (e.g., the work of Morley Callaghan), from which Allen’s text appears, at first glance, to formally distance itself.

One must, however, acknowledge the many ways in which They Have Bodies manifests a modernist aesthetic. Much is made by Betts, rightly so, of the novel’s self-consciousness: its tongue-in-cheek subtitle (A Realistic Novel in Eleven Chapters and Three Acts); the heterogeneous structure itself, allowing shifts to the dramatic mode to point up the cheap theatricality of family drama; the ellipses, signalling narrative disturbance, cuts, and deliberate omissions, perhaps evocative of experimental film editing. Another remarkable feature of the novel, as the editor points out, is how it imagines and stages its own censorship—in the form of “the Joynsett blasphemy case” (32), tried by Justice Taylor, in which the offending artist is punished with six months’ imprisonment in the Ontario Reformatory. To those aspects highlighted by Betts one ought to add the wildly improbable names of various trading partners (perhaps indebted to Fitzgerald’s famous catalogue of Gatsby’s guests) which pepper the turgid flow of Horace Gilbert’s almost entirely commodified thought in the ninth and tenth chapters. Here we find the likes of Hunniset & Beescombe, Snizzlewood & Snozzleworth, Papassmachass & Perlapoodas, Brumley & Grumley, and Winterbottom, Frost & Sleighman.

The very lexicon also bears signs of experiment, but in this aspect the novel seems less successful. Invention of this sort occurs most frequently in the thoughts of Horace Gilbert, the reprehensible paterfamilias-protagonist. He is a surprising fit for such attempts at linguistic volatility, since his speech seems the most dated, leading his lover, the housemaid Olive—roughly his daughters’ age—to call it “that funny little old language . . . that nobody else seems to know” (54). His dialogue is rife with phrases such as “dash it all,” “in the deuce,” “jolly,” “oh rot,” and “no end of a cad,” which makes him sound as if he has stepped out of Daisy Miller rather than a work censored on the grounds of obscenity. Yet his interior monologue features many adjectival coinages with the -ish suffix, such as “Mary Magdalenish” (53), “Joan of Arcish” (99), “indecentish” (82), “aristocratish” (98), “come-hitherish” (94), and “hair-on-the-backish” (97). Apart from these, also in their nominal morphings, and the odd sequence of clustered adverbs (“grouchily, surlily, sullenly, disgruntedly” [87]), there is little linguistic experiment per se. Curiously enough, the effect is the opposite of that (perhaps) intended: instead of the nasty, liberating freshness afforded by a Joycean “snotgreen” or “scrotumtightening,” the coinages in Allen’s novel, perhaps in keeping with its carnal focus, resemble a nervous tic.

While its formal experimentation brings mixed results, They Have Bodies certainly succeeds in exposing systemic misogyny, and in foregrounding desire as the driving force of the “machine age” (xv)—or, for that matter, any age. Unsurprisingly, from a contemporary perspective, the “obscenity” on which the original censorship pivoted is preposterous. The passage once deemed particularly distasteful concerns two employees at the company office—entirely marginal characters—on top of a “new glass-topped mahogany desk” (96), “going at it like a couple of dogs in a hay-loft” (96). The paradox here—that, far from naturalistic verisimilitude, the offending fragment is a simile, with the “hay-loft” thrown in for a poetic touch—is instructive: apparently it was by portraying the elite of Toronto as lustful, self-righteous hypocrites that Barney Allen truly transgressed.

The novel’s obsession with physicality is emphasized through a series of bodily metaphors, often relating to the society as an organism threatened by disease. For example, when Horace’s socialist daughter Kay wants to help a mentally disadvantaged child, she learns from a psychologist that “the scientific view is to lop him off like a gangrenous leg” (26). After Miss Nelson (the secretary fired by Horace for rejecting his sexual advances) demands an explanation, he questions the need for “raking up old sores” (128). To Horace’s outraged father-in-(literal)- law, Justice Taylor, the affair with Olive is likewise a “running sore” which must be effectively cauterized (112). On the whole, flesh seems to be a necessary evil, but its rank stench—as Taylor calls it during one of the family conclaves—ought not to be aired publicly.

“Sexuality,” Betts argues in his introduction, “obtrudes on all interactions, obstructing both business and social events, distracting and subverting all conversations” (xxx). Nor is the impulse restricted to the generally permissible. Enraged and aroused, Horace Gilbert may be turning over in his mind the phrase “Now what in the deuce was a wife for anyway?” (82) (with possible echoes of Stephen Dedalus’ angry “What else were they invented for?” [50]), but the object of his attention is not his “plump, gold-blonde” wife Peggy (54). A concatenation of desire, supposedly originating in Olive’s forbidden body—and denied in turn by several women, the secretary and Peggy among them—erupts in a tempestuous affair with his best friend’s wife, the grotesque-bodied Ruth Polton. And yet, on closer scrutiny, Horace’s passion reveals still other, more illicit, roots.

From the start, an incestuous air hangs over Horace’s fling with Olive. When he defends his feelings as paternal—because Olive “has had a very stony time in life” (57)—he is only half lying. Correspondingly, the encounters with his “flapperish” eighteen-year-old daughter Mona, whom he thinks of as the “choicest of the lot,” are always awkward and erotically charged (39). He cannot rid himself of the memory of her “shaking herself into a frock” (89) and of a kiss she gave him (“Well, that was more like . . .” [40]), and when she sits in his lap at the company office, he upbraids her as he would an illegitimate lover (“[C]an’t you see we’re not alone [. . .] None of that . . . Pull your skirts down, young lady . . .” [67]).

However, Olive is not just a working-class version of Mona, and thus a safer locus of rerouted desire. Throughout, she is given peculiar descriptions, the most common of which is “ogreish” (5); several members of the Gilbert household seem to agree on this demeaning term, with its plainly classist tinge. We soon learn, however, that Horace considers Olive “masculinish and yet strangely fascinating” (19). This recurrent thought about her body’s “unnatural” aspects (here, for once, the -ish suffix performs marvellously, marking a troublesome indeterminacy) makes him notice that Olive’s “torso front” and “torso back” are like those “of a welter-weight prize-fighter” (21). All this culminates in an effusion of compliments that seems directed at Olive’s hair colour, but manages to praise a number of other attributes: “That you should be strong and fenickity [sic] and healthy and rosy and broad-shouldered and without breasts, is delightful enough. But that you should have red hair . . .” (52). There is an undercurrent of queerness here, a far greater threat to the Gilberts’ and Taylors’ hypocritically genteel stability than they are able to imagine—at least in the pages of Allen’s novel.

A number of other issues could have sparked stimulating discussion if the novel had been read and examined at the time rather than summarily dismissed as indecent. Consider, for instance, the stabs Allen takes at the enshrined memory of Canadian involvement in the Great War—a mere decade after the fact. It is not just the case of Peggy Gilbert questioning her husband’s devotion to his service at Vimy and Amiens: “‘Oh, why are you so stubbornly loyal to these shadowy things of the past?’” (24). A more staggering blow is delivered by the plot itself: Horace Gilbert and Fred Polton, supposedly bound by their fidelity in the field of battle, covet and bed each other’s wives. The moral authority of the lost generation seems already eroded, as is the supposed respectability of the two men’s jobs: Gilbert is a businessman, Polton a defence counsel.

From a contemporary perspective, it is also fascinating to consider They Have Bodies as an early novel written in English by a Jewish Canadian author, predating A. M. Klein’s The Second Scroll by a good two decades. As we know from Betts’ introduction, Allen came from a family of Russian immigrants who arrived in Brantford, Ontario, via Pennsylvania, and who went on to become pioneers of the film industry as well as builders of luxury venues such as Allen’s Danforth Theatre in Toronto and the Allen Theatre in Calgary. While They Have Bodies, with its distinctly WASPish perspective, offers no direct problematization of Jewishness, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the treatment of social/ethnic outcasts. A glaring example is the relationship between Horace and a young “Italianish” painter, Mario Kandor, who proposes to his daughter Betty (68). The name—with possible echoes of “cantor”—is meaningful, since the painter manages to elicit a rare moment of truth from the disingenuous protagonist.

Horace Gilbert is no Poldy Bloom, no spiritual father to any bumbling Telemachus. His prudish sense of order and decency abhors notions of modern art and Bohemianism, and his storied first name offers a humorous contrast to a remarkably tedious mind. He repeats the platitude that Kandor “paints with a bludgeon and then tries to bludgeon you with his painting” (23); more importantly, he spurns the young man as a “bounder” (23). Unlike Bloom—Dublin’s tolerated, self-conscious alien—Horace Gilbert wields social power in Toronto; he detects and polices otherness in Kandor, demanding: “How do we know what sort of tainted stock he may have sprung from? What’s his nationality anyway? Is it Italian? If so, then why does he hide it? If not, why not?” (23). At a crucial moment, repelling Kandor’s half-hearted gesture of reconciliation, he blurts out: “I’ve no wish to have you for a near relative . . .” (69).

Unlike Betts, I hesitate to call Allen’s text a “chef-d’oeuvre” (xii); I believe a more measured response to this significant yet flawed novel will, in the long run, serve it better. One thing is clear: in 1929, They Have Bodies deserved to be treated as a morally courageous, aesthetically imperfect instance of modernist fiction by a fledgling writer, and to be judged on its artistic merits—not according to some misconceived notion of moral rectitude. Resurfacing today, after nearly a century, it cannot but appear dated in some aspects, even as it proves remarkably progressive in others; it certainly takes pride of place among experimental Canadian novels of the interwar years.

Works Cited
Allen, Barney. They Have Bodies: A Critical Edition, edited by Gregory Betts, U of Ottawa P, 2020.
Betts, Gregory. Introduction. They Have Bodies: A Critical Edition, by Barney Allen, edited by Betts, U of Ottawa P, 2020, pp. xi-lii.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. 1925. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 2004.
Joyce, James. 1922. Ulysses. Bodley Head, 1967.

This review “Rebirth of the Flesh” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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