by Maddie King
A few months ago, I wrote about four artists who became known only after they had passed away. I consider these artists to represent the polar extremity of BLOOM’s quest to examine the complex relationship between age, art, and critical success. But I had not considered another aspect of posthumous publication, in which “Bloomer” status is achieved not just in dying, but in dying young.
I want to flip the page onto two more posthumous writers. Jonathan Barrow and Andrzej Bursa each undertook novellas in their early twenties, and died shortly after completing them. Their works were picked up decades later–first by CB Editions in London–and published when the men would have been well into old age.
Jonathan Barrow was 22 when he died in Buckinghamshire on the 5th of April, 1970. His book, On the Run with Mary (originally: The Queue) was published by New Vessel Press in 2015, when he would have been 68.
I have tried to summarize On the Run with Mary on multiple occasions, and have invariably found that I cannot. Words fail to adequately describe the twisted–and rousing–experience of reading this bizarre little book.
The story goes: a young boy escapes from an elite yet nefarious boarding school in the English countryside. He makes the acquaintance of a dachshund named Mary at Euston Station in London and together, they hit the road.
What ensues is a cooly-recounted laundry list of scrapes with the perverted accosters, anthropomorphic benefactors and more littering the pair’s way to god knows where–hounded, all the while, by the school’s headmaster, who seems to lurk around every street corner. And then, it is gradually revealed that Mary, between her lewd exhibitionism, violent alcoholism, and sordid past, might just be the most depraved–and damaged–being of the bunch.
The book is all of 115 pages, and yet reading it feels like running a marathon at full tilt: every other sentence quickens the pace of an already breakneck cavalcade of horror and humor. But you can just about grasp at the glimmers of Barrow’s own ending as they whizz by. In one episode, a wedding is mistakenly replaced with a funeral, and the bride, “with tears pouring down her cheeks, ran from the church, did not see an oncoming bread-van and died under the wheels.”
Jonathan Head Barrow and his fiancé died in a car crash at 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon. A typewriter was found in the backseat, with pages of The Queue still poking out of it. In his biography, Animal Magic, his brother, Andrew Barrow notes that: “instead of getting married at the Brompton Oratory on 23 April, Jonathan and Anita had their double requiem there, with many if not almost all the potential wedding guests–the embossed copperplate invitations had already gone out–now in the role of mourners.” But even this scene is not as staggering in its predictions as one in which the narrator and Mary encounter a young, disheveled man leaning out the window of their train compartment.
“He looks wretched. His eyes are red with weeping. There has been a tragic incident. Last Tuesday he had finished his 90,000-word novel which had taken 9 years to write. He was now on his way to London to present the manuscript to Gilda & Godwin, Gilston St. publishers. But as he was passing an open window, a strong gust blew every sheet out of his hands. He was left clutching an empty file. I held his hand and comforted him. But, overcome with sorrow, he lowered the sill, and threw himself out. I got a turn-up but, because the material was cheap, I was left with just a handful of corduroy. Far below on Exton High St., I saw a crowd of shoppers gather round the body. That night, the editor at Gilda & Godwin was told the news. A man of action, he cabled Exton Technical College and asked them to send out volunteers to search tracks, sidings and cuttings to gather the lost work. With great diligence, the task was successfully completed and four days later all 14,000 sheets were despatched to London. [Despite sodden and almost illegible pages, the book was published on April 11th. It was an immediate success and the young writer was acclaimed, posthumously, as a genius.” (48)
After stints in a few rural boarding schools, Barrow worked in the hotel industry for a spell before taking a job as an advertising copywriter for the Ogilvy Agency and was steadily rising through the ranks. In the last year or so of his life, his sketches made it to the Redfern Gallery in London; his stories were being published by the London Magazine.
And then, around the time of his engagement, Barrow began to write The Queue, revisiting childhood sources of hilarity and fixation: scribbled accounts of scatalogical disasters, fatal car accidents and homosexual fornication and the crude, deceivingly-slapdash etchings of old pets. He had begun, as Andrew recalls, to make a serious go at some kind of genius, though “god knows what painful matters he addressed and then submerged in humour.” (291)
The scene in On the Run with Mary echoes a memory of Andrews, from a time when they were young adults living in the city together: “we eventually settled on an unfurnished flat in Knightsbridge, which had two tiny bedrooms and looked onto a mews. In preparation for the move, my brother cleared out his room at 52 Tite Street and to my surprise and annoyance threw a box of pictures and writings into the Thames.”
Andrzej Bursa was 25 when he died in Krakòw on the 15th of November 1957. His first and only book, Killing Auntie was first published in Polish in 1969, when he would have been 37, then translated into English by Wiesiek Powaga and published by New Vessel Press under their Rebel Lit Series in 2015.
As the Krakovian newspaper Gazeta Krakowska puts it, the book is an ode to a revolution against the banality of everyday life. The main character, Jurek, is a university student living with his middle-aged, self-sacrificing aunt. When she asks him to do a simple task, he decides to kill her. Well he doesn’t so much decide as just…does it, on a whim. Motive is irrelevant and never explicitly stated except for maybe once. “I wanted something to happen,” Jurek admits to the priest taking his confession.
This dull frustration is echoed later in the book, when Jurek begins to unravel under the pressure of disposing of his auntie’s corpse. One night, he gets drunk with some of his university pals and takes to the streets, shrieking drunken confessions of his crime. He is arrested–not for the murder of his aunt, but for disturbing the peace– a pardonnable offense which the author, as a rebel-poet in an authoritarian age, was guilty of on more than one occasion.
Ross Ufberg, cofounder of New Vessel Press, writes: “I think Bursa was writing this during a very gray time in the history of Poland–sandwiched between oppressors, both in terms of geography and epochs. They’d just been vanquished by the Nazis, and now were being occupied by the Russians. So, Bursa’s perverse story may be a rebellion against order and form. But who knows. It could have just been a young man’s lark, a quest to follow Dostoevsky down a dark path, laughing.”
Bursa is considered amongst Poland’s Współczesność, or “Contemporary Generation”: a vein of young writers who, officially consolidating in 1956, gravitated towards themes and forms that ran counter to the Socialist regime of their time. Bursa made a point, throughout his short career, of rejecting both of his parent’s ideologies: his father was a socialist radical; his mother, a devout catholic (they divorced when Bursa was a teenager.) After University, Bursa worked for the magazine Dziennik Polski, where his political reporting was heavily censored. He was excommunicated by the church, but found solace in verse: many if not most of his poems openly deride the hypocrisies of Poland’s most powerful institutions and everyday citizens. Literary magazines were printing some of these, but the preeminent publishing house in Krakòw rejected his debut volume of poetry not long before his death, stating that it was still too early for him to have a book–that he had time.
Andrzej Bursa believed that Killing Auntie would never be published–at least, not in 1957, and certainly not in Poland; it was too irreverent. The reality of Jurek’s predicament is coated in Kafkaesque charm and absurdity, rendering his crime philosophically intriguing rather than morally reprehensible. “The corpse ceased to be a whole. It lost its corporeal identity. Inside the bath lay the stomach and thighs, flanked by the breastbone on the one end and knees on the other; on the tile floor–an oddly proportioned bust with two large breasts, a head and very long arms. I picked it up by the hands and threw this… shape into the bath. Then I covered the flesh with a sheet. For it was flesh. Just flesh, not a corpse. Not even a carcass. My victory over the corpse was therefore a victory only over form. The body was still in the bath and not a tiniest piece of it had been annihilated. It was, if anything, a moral victory. More like capturing the enemy flag. The corpse had lost its flag. (55)”
Fittingly, Bursa’s send-off was no straight-forward affair. He was not granted a funeral by the Church, and people speculated heavily about the cause of his demise. His widow, Ludwika Szemioth mused, in a 2011 interview: “people said nonsense: he killed himself, his heart pierced! Maybe because he often wrote about death. After an autopsy, it turned out that he died because he had the aorta of a 9-year-old. I didn’t want an autopsy. But the doctor convinced me. He said there would be rumors of suicide.” And indeed, there were. For a long time, Bursa’s death was ruled deliberate–whether the rumor best suited the portrait of a sinner, or that of a rebel, is unclear. In reality, Bursa fainted at a house-party. There was a hospital nearby but the doctor refused to come, upon hearing that the patient was only 25. Today, he would be 88.
“I had imagined death differently
naively I believed
that the supreme orgasm of terror
would finally knock me out of pain’s sphere”
-Verse by Andrzej Bursa
It would seem that Barrow and Bursa have inherited the mantle of “Poètes Maudits” (cursed poets), a term originally co-opted by Paul Verlaine to classify revolutionary writers, dead before their time. Both authors simultaneously relished and abhorred putridness, designating death as a delicious way to punctuate life and the morass of complacency that accompanies it. Such was the difference between a period and an exclamation mark to end a sentence, a treat to tide one over until the next one. And in a ironic twist befitting them both, their work is left to mature in their stead. But perhaps that is beside the point.
Ufberg notes: “Books should live outside their authors, once they’ve been published. Art is not the artist. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to sit down with Bursa, sit down with Barrow, and talk about what they wrote, why they wrote it. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that actually matters. The backstory, the ins and outs of when they wrote it, why, whether they’d be embarrassed or proud. I think that’s entertainment. The books, though – that’s literature.”
Maddie King graduated from Skidmore College in 2018 with a degree in English and a focus in Creative Writing and Film.
Featured Image by Monica Horowitz