Last month the estimable Hesperus Press ran a competition to find an undiscovered classic, asking entrants to write a short introduction to a book unwarrantedly out-of-print. The winner was Michael Wynne, who suggested The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Congratulations to him, and to her. My entry was a pitch for Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, first published by Secker & Warburg, 1962, and since seen in editions from Corgi, 1965, and Cardinal, 1990. I wrote about my initial discovery of Brophy’s books in a previous post here, but here, for posterity, is my pitch for Flesh. I heartily recommend it to all, especially publishers of neglected classics, who are more than welcome to approach me for use of the following…
Both my editions of Brigid Brophy’s short novel Flesh have a woman on their cover, both naked, seemingly, but sultry and melancholy, undeniably. On 1990’s Cardinal edition – its last published appearance – she is Bill Brandt’s 1955 photograph Nude, which has also graced the covers of novels by Alexander Theroux and Don DeLillo. (The other woman, on the 1965 Corgi paperback, popped up again, bizarrely enough, on Creation Records’ seminal 1988 sampler LP Doing it for the Kids.)
Both images do the book a disservice. The flesh of the title, after all, isn’t simply a euphemism for sex, though sex features strongly in it; it is also a reference to that other appetite that religion treats as a sin, though Brophy doesn’t: gluttony. By the end of the book’s narrative, gauche, nervy Marcus has become, in the words of his wife Nancy, and thanks (to her surprise as much as his) to her excellent cooking, “disgustingly fat,” to which he chucklingly, approvingly replies, referring back to their art gallery visits, “I’ve become a Reubens woman.”
Flesh was first published in 1962, which makes it an early and definitive refutation of Larkin’s claim that sexual intercourse began the following year. For the sex in it is charmingly, bracingly, heart-warmingly good. On the couple’s honeymoon, Nancy proves that, as well as a “talent for sexual intercourse”, she also has the “gift of tactlessness”:
Marcus had always imagined that when he did at last make love to a woman it would be in terrible silence, interrupted only by such noises as their bodies might voluntarily make, which he had already conceived might be embarrassing. But Nancy talked to him about what he was to do, about what he was doing, in a low, rather deep, swift voice which provoked in his skin almost the same sensation as her hands. When he entered her body, he felt he was following her voice.
If only, you think, if only poor Edward Mayhew in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach had got hold of a copy of Brophy’s newly published novel before his own wedding night, in July of that same year, then disaster would have been averted.
Wonderful as the sex is, and Brophy’s treatment of it (no Bad Sex Award for her), her portrayal of this marriage of, not convenience, but certainly happenstance, is equally compelling. Marcus and Nancy’s life in not-yet-swinging Chelsea is given us in water-clear prose that sees everything exactly as it is, but never pretends to see what is around the corner. Marcus’s work in the dubious antiques business of “Uncle” Polydore; their flat, rendered permanently provisional by the endless procession of half-restored pieces of furniture brought home from the shop; the arrival of a baby; and then the arrival, seduction and departure of an au pair… Brophy treats it all briskly, airily, truthfully.
The book is dedicated to Iris Murdoch, with whom gossip suggests Brophy had an affair, and indeed Brophy’s prose sits somewhere between the intense cleverness of Murdoch and the gimlet-eyed irony of Muriel Spark. She deserves to be as revered, and as read, as either.