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The Body

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Consul, London, 1966
(price: 3/6; 208 pages)
first published by the Hogarth Press, 1949

The blurb on the back:

The Body is a study of jealousy. From the moment when Henry Bishop a middle aged hairdresser, sees a stranger gazing up at his wife's bathroom window, he is obsessed by a belief that she is unfaithful to him. Feeding on a few slight clues — &n entry in a diary, a whiff of tobacco in an empty room — this obsession finally blazes up into the .very ecstasy of hate. Its theme is admirably suited to Mr Sansom's talent for revealing the normal world as it appears in the distorting mirror of a mind under abnormal stress.

opening lines:
To hold the syringe gently, firmly but delicately – not to squirt, but to prod the sleeper into wakefulness with the nozzle, taking care to start no abrupt flight of fear.

God, this is a horrible book. And I mean that in a good way. It’s beautifully written, and thoroughly convincing, but the subject is so nasty that you rather wish it weren’t quite so good.

In essence, Henry Bishop tells us the story of his mental collapse and breakdown, as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that his wife is having an affair with the car salesman next door. And, er, that’s it. But the remorseless journey into self-destruction is terrible to behold: there are few novels that stare so unflinchingly into the horrors of the human mind.

When in 1984 Anthony Burgess drew up his list in the New York Times of the 99 best English language novels of the previous 45 years, he wrote that ‘Reading pleasure has not been the sole criterion’ and promptly included this in his list. ‘Pleasure’ certainly ain’t part of the experience – I had to put it down for a few days to gather my strength before going for the last few chapters – but I’d unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone seeking out the highest quality examples of the novelist’s art. Accessible, intelligent, unbearably intense, this is about as good as modern literature gets.

Just in case it sounds intolerably bleak, I should also add that it also captures the atmosphere of suburban London at the turn of the 1950s perfectly, giving it a certain nostalgic and historical appeal. But, to be honest, even this is fairly desperate. Here he is on a typical young woman of the period, looking for salvation through cosmetics:

Her all-consuming interest was beautification - her world was of varnishes and creams, astringents and lotions, unguents and oils and powders and perfumes. The newer they were, the more clinical the design of containers - the better she liked them. Hers was no study of quality but of novelty, so that a new cream approximated the latest film or dance-tune. Films and jazz were secondary to this main cosmetic interest; for although the cinema's fabulous star-creatures provided the dream paradise which in the first place stimulated these cosmetics - it had progressed beyond that, the cosmetic had become the real, practical means of approximating some resemblance to the star, and the star, though a guide, shone with a more distant and less urgent light. (p.86)

A wonderful, wonderful book. But horrible.


see the Penguin edition:

When Anthony Burgess drew up a list of the 99 best novels written between 1939 and 1984, The Body was amongst them, as was:

Rex Warner, The Aerodrome