By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Illustration by Tra Selthrow|
When David MacKenzie set out to film Alexander Trocchi’s 1954 novel Young Adam, he wasn’t interested in homage so much as a project that might evoke the poetic bleakness of Scotland’s seagoing canals. This makes for an unintended irony, since the Glasgow-born Trocchi, who died in 1984 of complications from pneumonia, spent much of his life in active conflict with Scottish culture, which he considered parochial and narrow-minded. It was just that, in fact, which led Trocchi to leave Scotland in 1950, and later to declare that the writer’s obligation was to explore the relationship of the individual to society through the filter of a personal rebellion, to stand inviolable and apart. Certainly, such ideas mark Young Adam, which, starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, offers a claustrophobic portrait of postwar canal life, with its joyless work ethic, its oppressive air of conventional morality. For the most part, however, Trocchi’s presence in the film is more or less an afterthought, as if he were a ghost in the machine.
This is only as it should be, for, two decades after his death, Trocchi remains something of a cipher, a lost figure, a writer remembered, if at all, for his dissipation rather than his work. Of his dozen books, just two are in print in the United States. Partly, this has to do with his willful self-abnegation. A longtime junkie (and a nihilist intent, in a very real sense, on nullifying his own life), he essentially stopped writing after his 1960 novel Cain’s Book, which celebrated heroin addiction as a philosophical choice. There is a movie tie-in edition of Young Adam, but when I call the publisher, Grove Press, no one there knows anything about it, and MacKenzie, too, is unaware of its existence until I bring it up. “Trocchi,” he says by way of explanation, “set himself up to be a marginal figure, so it’s no surprise he is one.”
At the same time, Trocchi was, by all accounts, possessed of an enormous ego, which makes his disappearance less a matter of oblivion than a conscious gesture of superiority. “Trocchi believed he was so powerful, both in his mind and in his body,” recalled his British publisher John Calder in a 1995 interview, “that he could resist anything, and of course he got hooked [on heroin] very quickly and was never able to get off it for the rest of his life.” Or, as Trocchi puts it in the closing lines of Cain’s Book: “Ending, I should not care to estimate what has been accomplished. In terms of art and literature? — such concepts I sometimes read about, but they have nothing in intimacy with what I am doing, exposing, obscuring. Only at the end I am still sitting here, writing, with the feeling I have not even begun to say what I mean, apparently sane still, and with a sense of my freedom and responsibility, more or less cut off as I was before.”
If that reads like an epitaph, it’s also the logical endpoint of a subversive life. In Paris, in the early 1950s, Trocchi played a central role in the expatriate bohemia of the Left Bank, along with George Plimpton, Terry Southern and Peter Matthiessen. He was the first editor to publish Samuel Beckett in English, in his short-lived but influential journal Merlin. He also wrote six novels in three years, mostly “dbs,” or “dirty books,” cranked out for Olympia Press. Olympia’s owner, Maurice Girodias, was the son of Jack Kahane, whose Obelisk Press had published Henry Miller in the 1930s, and Girodias, too, had literary aspirations: At a time when many books were being challenged for obscenity in Britain and the U.S., he put out novels like Lolita, Naked Lunch, Candy and The Ginger Man in English for the first time.
Trocchi, who went to Paris to emulate Miller, clearly responded to Girodias’ willingness to push the boundaries, and his Olympia novels reveal his double-edged cast of mind. Thongs, which, like most of his Paris work, was published under the pseudonym Frances Lengel, tells the story of Gertrude Gault, a Glasgow woman who becomes Grand Painmistress of a secret order of sexual sadists. By modeling the cult’s structure on the Catholic Church, Trocchi frames a trenchant critique of conventional culture, which hides its moral lapses behind a sanctimonious public face. In 1954, Trocchi also helped Girodias pull off a legendary hoax by writing a fifth volume of Frank Harris’ My Life and Loves.
Young Adam was the third of Trocchi’s Paris novels, and although he did dirty it up for Olympia, it wasn’t a “db.” (According to Jane Lougee, Trocchi’s lover at the time, “It was disappointing for Alex to have Girodias do the book.”) Unlike, say, Thongs, the sex here seems false, gratuitous, and was removed from subsequent editions. That’s not to say Young Adam doesn’t have erotic undertones; like most of Trocchi’s work, it’s rife with desire and longing, a sense that, in the physical, we might free ourselves, however temporarily, from the strictures of society. More than anything, though, it’s a philosophical novel, a tautly written existential thriller narrated by a barge worker named Joe Taylor who lets an innocent man hang for the murder of a young woman, a death that Joe himself has caused. Whether or not the killing is intentional remains an open question: “[W]as it an accident?” Joe wonders. “I suppose it was. It had never occurred to me to kill her. I was merely walking away.”