Publishing Obscenity & the Arts by PARIAH’s Jonny Walsh
Obscenity & the Arts began in an oblong room, the engine-house of a former mill, situated within an area once dubbed ‘Little Ireland’, surrounded as we were, by Anthony Burgess’s furniture. Indelible images of twentieth century criminality blazed large on a screen at the very end of the room. An articulate and astute Mark Blacklock and a demonic Austin Collings giving voice to The Idea of Death, a rare PARIAH PRESS event in Manchester, 26 June 2015.
Three hours hence, I’m smashed in the Lass O’Gowrie pub. Will Carr, the deputy director of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation – always impeccably polite and to-the-point, and impressed, somehow, with PARIAH’s temerarious bent, mentions to me: ‘We may have something you’d be interested in publishing.’ A symphony to these soused, oversized ears.
Originally printed in a run of fifty poorly transcribed and substandardly typeset pamphlets, and not available outside of Malta, the first outing of Obscenity & the Arts was a decidedly scratchy, parochial affair. Nevertheless, upon a couple of readings, it became apparent that this was perfect PARIAH material: an internationally renowned working-class author, a dead one at that (less hassle), the deliverance of thought-provoking, amusing and controversial oratory, a broader ambience of agitation and disaster, and the ever thorny/fascinating issue of censorship. The contract was signed in May 2016.
A simple grammatical edit, and a neatening and reprinting of the original pamphlet would have been a literary cop-out. The Burgess Foundation houses a vast repository of Burgess’s life and work within Andrew Biswell, Will Carr, Graham Foster and Anna Edwards… and the subterranean archive is pretty special too. So, why not bring some lustrous materials to the surface? A conceptual framework quickly manifested on the creation of a type of ziggurat of literature, a majestic intercorrelation of words and images – around the remit of ‘Anthony Burgess in Malta 1968-1974’ – upon which to sacrificially display, and thereby give further meaning to, the genius of Burgess’s lecture. I donned my wetsuit and dived in.
Whilst the chaps at the Foundation wheeled away, producing an excellent clean version of the original pamphlet, I enlisted the acuminous eyes of Adam Griffiths – a graphic designer who had previously saved us from having a dog on a cross as the PARIAH PRESS logo. Prompted and directed by the brilliant Anna Edwards, the Burgess Foundation archivist, we pared down a large amount of Burgess family photography, from their time on Malta, to a selection which would add a visual texture to the tale. That this was the first occasion upon which photography from the archive had seen publication was only pointed out to me at a later date. We also examined the list of Burgess’s books banned by the Maltese authorities (the black splodge is from the original document – seemingly an anathema to all printers and our typesetter… ‘Are you getting rid of that?’ etc.) – and the ‘Feuerwerk’ solo-piano piece, a beautiful document in and of itself – as a non-musician I was drawn mainly to the mug stains.
With the aid of the Burgess Foundation, a shortlist of supporting essayists was drawn up. Our first choice, Germaine Greer: a contemporary of Burgess, a natural contrarian and a feminist voice integral to the book functioning as a whole. ‘We’ll never get her!’ Within a week of my initial offer she had agreed, and after another three weeks we had our supporting essay – nearly four months ahead of schedule. To my mind, it’s a brilliant and funny piece, and slightly misses the point in the best possible sense.
And then the lull. The nine months straddling the end of 2016 and on into the 2017 saw Obscenity put on hold due to a combination of serious ill health, death and subsequent downscaling of PARIAH PRESS to one lone board member. The Burgess Foundation also found themselves swamped somewhat by the rabid success of the #Burgess100 centenary year, making real progress difficult. Nevertheless, there was little time pressure on the project, and better to get it right than to rush or force, something sorely learned from my experience of the first PARIAH publication.
Once more, towards the end of 2017 the Ferris wheel began to turn. Adam Griffiths had been working with a selection of landscape photographs we had disinterred from the Foundation’s archive. His final work a thoughtful and much needed visual, contemporary response to the discourse provoked by Burgess’s speech. He was the perfect option to come on board fully as director of project aesthetics. The cover art with its redactive debossing is testament to his artistic vision.
Andrew Biswell met with Marie Said on a trip to Malta, in research for his own introductory essay. Marie very generously allowed us the use of her interview with Burgess, which directly preceded his fateful talk at the University of Malta.
The Punch interview of 1974 became the final editorial decision and a late one, added as a type of bob and wheel. It is meant to surprise and to disarm. Although it goes against the chronological nature of the previous pieces, it was a bold way to end. The aim, to raise a few more issues and asks further questions of the reader; I also felt Burgess should have the last word, he would surely have wanted it. The final arrangement of the pieces was chosen amidst a drunken discussion with Adam Griffiths and Lisa Lorenz. But, it still made sense the next day, which was key.
Constructing the interior architecture of the book/ziggurat in conjunction with our typesetter on this project, Geoff Read, was an extremely long-winded process due to the nature and variety of materials we handled. PARIAH has an in-house aesthetic which applies to the size and feel of each mass-market paperback we publish. However, the interior of each publication presents its own puzzles to be worked through. Whilst The Myth of Brilliant Summers was spacious, deconstructionalist and hymn-like on the page, I saw Obscenity as the opposite, a taut ball of energy. Hopefully, despite these differences we’ve still produced something elegant and readable and PARIAH.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of the process came only once we had honed something resembling a workable manuscript. Endorsements and press… the opportunity to attempt correspondance with the great and the good of Burgess’s milieu. The response was overwhelmingly positive, thankfully. Desmond Morris (I helped him open the files), Erica Jong, DM Thomas, Tony Palmer and Harold Bloom (assures me he will still endorse) were receptive to the book’s themes and cause, and shared some incredible memories of Burgess. The genuine warmth and esteem in which he is still held was extremely touching. Karl Lagerfeld received the manuscript but I’ve heard nothing since, silence from Princess Caroline of Monaco, a straight no from Charlotte Rampling and a too busy John Irving. ‘It is evident one cannot always win.’
The book is now birthed, finally. I hope it isn’t an ‘obvious’ read and that people sense there are multiple narratives to be explored within the text. The intent, always, is to provoke thought. Burgess remains a fascinating and inspiring character to me, I feel I have grown to know him as this project has lumbered on. Obscenity & the Arts is selling well abroad. New editions are on the cards. The Foundation have been delightful, and I feel fortunate to have received great help and support from the talented Adam Griffiths and Alexandra Pereira for the last couple of years. It remains probable I will keep putting out strange pocket books.
Words: Jonny Walsh, PARIAH PRESS