Tom Mallin was born on 14 June 1927 in West Bromwich. His father died when he was four, and he was charitably educated at a boarding school, and later went to the Birmingham School of Art, from where he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy. His art studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army and between 1945 and 1947 he served much of his National Service in the Middle East. He moved to London and in 1949 married the American-born painter Muriel George. He trained as a picture restorer, while continuing to paint in his spare time and also contributing illustrations and cartoons to periodicals such as Lilliput and Picture Post. In 1955 Mallin moved to Suffolk with his wife and two sons, where he continued to work as a sculptor, painter and restorer until 1966 when he suffered a crisis of confidence in the visual arts. He buried most of his sculpture and destroyed many of his paintings and turned his attention to writing. When his first novel, Dodecahedron (1970), was published, Francis King wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that “it is amazing that a writer so gifted should only now be publishing his first novel at the age of 43”. In the same year his first stage play, Curtains, was produced at the Tower Theatre in London, from where it went to the Edinburgh Festival under the direction of Michael Rudman at the Traverse Theatre. Mallin’s other published novels are Knut (1971), Erowina (1972), Lobe (1977) and Bedrok (which was posthumously published in 1978). Mallin died of cancer on 21 December 1977. In the fifteen years before his death he produced over forty full-length novels and plays. Mallin’s intense, fast, joyful way of working was in direct contrast with the usual cliché of the artist suffering to produce a few sentences each day. Similarly, his willingness to reinvent whole countries he had never seen is at odds with the realistic novelist’s research and information gathering.
MALLIN: My first published book was Dodecahedron, which was written in 1969 but came out in 1970, then Knut, then Erowina, written in 1965. They were published in the wrong order, like Shaw’s books were published in the wrong order and they said he was getting better and better!
BURNS: I thought your first novel was Dodecahedron and it struck me as an absolutely extraordinary first novel, but it was your third?
I’ll tell you about that. There’s also all the others I’ve destroyed, anyway not published, and there’s one which keeps on being returned, I don’t understand why, called Fripp, finished in ’69. A lot were finished in 1969. I’ve written two, four six, eight, eleven novels altogether but I wouldn’t be seen dead with them apart from the last four, and I like Fripp.
Tell us a little about those unpublished books.
The first book was about partisans! Don’t ask me why! I followed it with a book called Dagbad, then one about the seven deadly sins but linked. . . . The idea was that in this Middle East country a revolution was taking place, and there was this American who obviously was threatened because he was an American, and he took refuge with a money-lender (that was Greed). The moneylender tells him tales before he’s moved on (he’s trying to make his escape) and he’s passed on to others, shopkeepers . . . and each abstracts something from him, rings, anything, and in the end he’s . . . murdered. At the last he’s in a tomb where he meets a man who’s been there for ages and who lives on the snails who inhabit the tomb. Meant to be a fantasy fairy tale. That was written in the fifties, when I was painting, earning a living as a restorer. Then I gave up everything, in terms of regular non-writing employment. Now, instead of writing only in the evenings, I write from six in the morning until late at night, the whole day, non-stop.
When you were painting, restoring and writing, wasn’t it exhausting?
When I work I’m totally submerged, I throw myself into everything. If I were collecting fish I’d go absolutely berserk about collecting fish. Anything I do I get totally absorbed in, and that’s it. So fatigue didn’t come into it. At the start I wrote all those books out in longhand. Then my wife said, “You ought to do something about all this,” and I thought, I can’t send away things in longhand so I bought a typewriter. As soon as I bought a typewriter I could no longer write in longhand. It was the cheapest portable and it broke. I got another cheap portable and that broke too. They all break, I wear them out. When I’m doing the final type I do it carefully, two fingers only, but when I’m composing I write so rapidly, I want to get it down so quickly, I use three or four or more fingers, to get it down before the idea disappears. If someone taps on the door and I’m halfway through a thought, it’s gone, it’s finished, I’ve had it! So initially I write fast, then when I’ve got it all down for the day or the week or whatever it is, then I have to say, come on, sort all this mess out and have a very careful look and see what you’ve got, you know, because your heart goes so fast! Calm down, and let’s have a look at what you’re doing! And try to make it readable and . . . work as a craftsman, I suppose.
You enjoy both jobs, the composing and the editing?
Oh, I enjoy it all. As soon as I sit down, I’m away! I adore it.
I can tell you about that. I’m not one of those people, and there are some, who think ahead before they begin to type. They have firm ideas about what they would really like to write about. It’s not like that for me. Dodecahedron happened very simply, from a curious set of coincidences. My wife had been watching Kenneth Clark’s talks on Civilization and she came in and asked, “What is a dodecahedron?” I wrote it down, got my big dictionary, and kept saying, Dodeca, Dodeca, funny, that’s a girl’s name, then found it: twelve-sided figure. It was Easter, and I thought, Easter, twelve stations of the cross, and don’t ask me what made me think of this jump: twelve-sided figure, twelve stations of the cross, Easter, Christ, and another thing which, I don’t know, might bear on it, my eldest son brought back a film script by Bergman because at that time I was interested in writing film scripts, so Dodecahedron was written as a film script initially, and twelve . . . and twelve . . . it all came together, and I sat down and typed it, literally, which I’d never done before, in two weeks, simple as that. And yes, I was reading The Lost Books of Eden, parts of the Bible which have been banned, withdrawn from the Bible, and, at the beginning of Dodecahedron there are a number of quotes from this Lost Book of Eden . . . it tells how Jesus did dead little boys round a fish pool because they broke his clay duck, he deaded them! [laughs] which in a Bible you can’t have, if it’s Jesus, you see? And all this talk of his brothers and sisters, fascinating reading. All these things, all disparate, coincided, which somehow made me spring off into the tale. And because it’s Dodeca and hedron I immediately thought of her not as Christ but going through these twelve terrible experiences. So that’s the trigger. . . .
I wonder, particularly as Dodecahedron was written as a film script (but not confined to a film script), is it, as you sit typing fast, as if you were watching a film and describing what you can see?
I’ve been a painter, English painters tend to be literal, and I was literal. I don’t think I was a very good painter but I was literal. This always worried me. I was certainly very talented, but being literal I saw images, all the time, I still do, very real images which I can walk into and inhabit, so if an image comes up, of a room, building, landscape, I know it, so well, immediately, that I can go in to it.
You said, when a building “comes up”?
It just appears. Say, “an old building”. There are various words you might use to establish what sort of a place or landscape it’s going to be, or a person: they assemble themselves visually, there they are, very real. With Erowina I’d been reading an American detective story, in which for the first time one was taken into a morgue and the body dissected, right? And I thought, that doesn’t go far enough, so I started to write Erowina. It opens in a morgue, and Erowina is described from the crown of her head to her toes, and the more I travelled down this body, describing it and whatnot, the more clearly I saw this woman and how she had killed herself with a hat pin. I’d not worked out the rest of the story, I was just doing this . . . and there she was and I was intrigued to know more about her. I thought, having described the body, why not describe where she lives, everything about her? In fact the book was cut by half because it would have been massive — but nowhere in that massive book is there a description of Erowina, except when she’s lying in the morgue. I don’t think there’s a description of anybody (unless memory betrays me). I also tried to get away from that “He said”, “She replied”, though in other books I haven’t.
You avoid it in Dodecahedron.
That’s because it started as a film script, then I took out the shots and locations and fiddled it like that — yes, fiddled, fiddled, reconstructed it. Whereas Knut was initially a film script called Das Lust Haus, which was the nearest I could get to Gazeba (lust house). I liked the film script so much and everybody kept turning it down — so I thought, dammit, I’d write it as a book, but by that time I was more interested in a minor character, a little boy who died, so I kept him alive and he became central to it.
The woman on the slab, in the morgue, Erowina, you say you described her, you could see her, so the question is: where did she come from? The possible simple answer to that is, Oh, well, she’s my Auntie Tillie. But presumably it’s not that simple, not simply someone you know?
When I think of where people come from, characters, situations, anything — I think of the clarity with which they appear in the first few words you use — you have a vague notion of what they are like, but with the first few words you use to describe them, you, as it were, start to clothe them, set them off. . . . I think a creative person is a person who switches so rapidly — if he jumps from thought to thought he will then bring them together. There are random things happening all the time and he brings them together, and the bringing together sometimes gives you such a clear image that it is very, very real.
Would you try and show how that process worked with Erowina, in more detail?
Let’s say I wanted to write about this body in the morgue. I set out roughly what the analysis from head to toe would be. Then I thought, this is not detailed enough, if this is going to be the only description of her in the book I thought I wanted it in absolutely meticulous detail.
So people are either going to miss the whole point or get this into their heads, to last the book through, rather than in Chapter Three say she has a birthmark, and Chapter Six she had long hair? This will last the long book through?
Exactly. So having described her roughly as she lay on the slab, I went back and described her in more detail. As soon as I more or less got the shape, the female shape lying there, with the various things that have happened to her, I went back and described her minutely, and she suddenly – like Frankenstein’s monster – she suddenly got up off the table! There she was! Absolutely real.
You still haven’t quite answered the question: “Where did she come from?”
I wanted a woman who was about thirty to thirty-five. I got to think about her, a woman of thirty-five who had probably not really looked after herself all that well. How much fat will she have on her? So, when you start taking measurements of fat, you take your calipers and you divide by two right? Because you have two thicknesses. So I pinched myself and had a look, and I thought, a woman would be a bit fattier here, and I looked up my anatomical books and whatnot.
Well, I studied anatomy, you see. And that was one point where I knew that I’d got it. I can’t describe it in terms, as to say, “As far as here” or “Down to her knees” but at some point she certainly became very real.
This is at the beginning of the book. Did you at that stage envisage the context in which she would live, which would give her certain characteristics?
I had no idea. When I decided that she’d committed suicide with a pin – you must remember I was writing a detective story, this was not a very original way of murder or whatever – I thought it would be self-inflicted but I had no idea why. I just wanted this body in the morgue on the slab, and it was only later I made her pregnant, about a year later, it took a long time, about a year later I made her pregnant and put that in.
Very rarely. In fact Fripp is the only slightly autobiographical book I’ve ever written, yet it isn’t.
Well, there are bits and scraps of you, there’s the man with the iron-grey hair — does it surprise you to hear that?
You mean as Hedron? No, never occurred to me. I can describe him, I can see him, but it’s not like looking in the mirror, I never thought of myself. . . .
But, just as we say that people’s pet dogs look like their owners because instinctively they choose themselves, but unaware, do you, as it were, choose. . .
Ah, well, you see, I write fiction. Now to me this is all imagination, as far as I’m concerned. There are people who when they write fiction have to have the right aeroplane flights, the right times for the trains. I dislike this intensely. I know there are people who do it and have great fun with it, but I dislike it. All my books, except for Erowina which is set in a part of London I know, they’re all set in places I’ve never been to, Sweden, Middle East, and Lobe, a very strange book, is set in Yugoslavia. Therefore I can create from imagination, I don’t want to be accurate as regards that. But coming back to Erowina, you’re dead right, I did describe in one chapter, where they have a meal in a Greek restaurant and go on to a club afterwards, and they are all real people.
But that’s the exception?
That was the exception, that was deliberate because at that time a writer who shall be nameless had written a book about my friend, and my friend and I couldn’t find his character in the book. In other words we were seeing differently, and I thought I’d do an accurate assessment in a description, but so far no one seems to have recognized themselves and it’s the only time I’ve ever done it. What initiated me was that someone, having been told they’d been written about, couldn’t recognize themselves in the book and I couldn’t recognize them either. So, as it were in reply, I wrote what I thought was accurate. I don’t know if they read the book or not but so far I’ve had no come-backs.
I see two elements working together: the characters you draw have no source in your friends or family. And there is the deliberate projection into a land that you’ve never been in. The result is an attempt to abstract the whole fictional process? To remove fiction from social reality? You attempt to disconnect the scene you describe from social reality, and as far as you can, to disconnect it from yourself, which creates a very clinical, clear, almost scientific style?
I would have thought it was a more imaginative style because if I was going to set it in a real place I’d have all this bother of making the buses run to time, and really it’s so boring. . . .
Of course it is. When I say your style is precise and scientific I don’t mean that in contrast to imaginative work or in any way incompatible with that. On the contrary. Take Kafka, The Trial or The Castle which are clearly set not in a “real” country but in an imagined land. Yet as part of the skill that creates that we get Kafka’s meticulous, incomparable eye for physical detail. That’s what I mean by work which combines scientific precision, a marvellously observant eye, plus an attempt to disconnect the novel from a known scene. And you’re in that line, that territory?
I agree with that. It is deliberate.
Further: if you site a novel in a place you know, in a sense your imagination can relax. You can write “Oxford Street” and you’ve no need to describe the particular characteristics of Oxford Street, the label is enough. The lazy writer and the lazy reader collaborate and the result is stodge, unimaginative stodge. Whereas you compel yourself and you compel your reader to follow you, into a territory in which, starting from scratch, you’ve got to describe everything, because that which you don’t describe will not exist?
Yes. You must also understand that I write plays as well as novels. A play does exist in front of people’s eyes. Therefore, if you like, in compensation for the “unreality” of the novels I have the “reality” of the plays using those words in a special, limited sense.
Just as Kafka wrote Amerika not having been, so you create countries, people, “from your imagination”. But the ultimate source of all the contents of your imagination is social reality? As Miro said, “To leap in the air, you must start with your feet on the ground.” That’s true too, isn’t it?
So there’s a certain gap in your description of your writing process. We get this highly-wrought meticulously observed “reality”, and then there’s everyday life. What is the connection between the two?
If you said to me now: Draw me a street or a person, I’d do it, but I’d ask you for just one or two more details. Is it an English country town or is it an English city? Is it abroad? Is the person with high cheek-bones coming from the East? Just one or two little points. Then I’ll sit down and draw you in great detail with loving care, the person or the place. I’ll do that! To me it’s the same as writing about it. Once I’ve got one or two points I can start to wonder, and think how she sits. . . . And then she’ll take over, or the town, or the view.
One of your particular talents, therefore, is to take off from a generalization or hardly more, into the particular. You illustrated that when talking of Erowina: “Well, she’s about thirty-five.” Now that’s a thoroughly unremarkable thing to say of a woman. But you went straight from that to a stunning sentence: “How much fat will she have on her?” That, for me, is a perfect example of how to travel straight, fast and true from the general to the particular.
When I make that jump I find I immediately have hundreds of other jumps going on, that’s why I have initially to work fast. I don’t want to lose them. I can’t write them down in longhand fast enough, so I have to get to the typewriter and get as much down as I possibly can, and suddenly she or he stands up, large, and illumined. Then I’m happy. Once I’ve got them, then they can start to do things “on their own”, though they’ve still got to walk in rooms and across landscapes I create for them. You might go into a shop every day to buy cigarettes and only see the shopkeeper from the waist up, he’s somehow part of the shelves, he’s there. But when you meet him in the street you don’t recognize him! The background’s different! He’s got legs! So you have to build the background for them, but they themselves have a background.
Once they have been made, then they’ll begin to make things?
They’ll begin to move and relate. It can be very difficult when characters you’ve given a few words to say will say things that surprise you, things you never dreamt they’d say.
From The Imagination on Trial (ed. Alan Burns & Charles Sugnet), Allison & Busby, 1980.
Read an excerpt from Fripp, an unpublished Tom Mallin novel, here.