by Esteban Rodríguez
New Directions Publishing, 2022
It may be difficult to imagine yourself stepping away from a career you spent decades making, to one day realize that you can no longer continue doing what you invested so much of your time, energy, and heart into. But for musicians, artists, and writers, the path of consistently producing work, and promoting it to be at the forefront of cultural conversations, is not always the easiest to take. For the late English poet and novelist Rosemary Tonks, the desire to write gave way to prioritizing her health, her search for God, and her shifting attitudes toward literature, all reasons well detailed in Neil Astley’s introduction to her collected poems, Bedouin of the London Evening (Bloodaxe Books, 2014). Tonks did what was necessary for her, and while we may never know what might have been written had she not stopped writing in the late 1970s, she did leave behind a robust body of work, including arguably her most famous novel, The Bloater, first published by Bodley Head in 1968 and reissued this year by New Directions. Unlike Tonks’ later, Christian-oriented life, the protagonist in The Bloater isn’t concerned with morality on any existential level; rather, Min preoccupies her time with the pleasures of the present, and through the course of her physical and emotional interactions with various men (none of which include her husband, George), she explores her most intimate desires as a woman and contemplates whether the idea of perfection can ever be fully realized.
If you find yourself stuck in a loveless marriage, and if the issues that led to such strife cannot be reconciled, chances are you might try to seek a clean break or find comfort in the attention of someone else. For Min, a BBC sound engineer married to a man whose existence barely registers in her life, the latter option is the route that is more enticing, and readers quickly forget she is married at all. Min does, too, and the lovers she seeks out know that she is in no way committed to being with them for the long term, even though a part of them wants that commitment. Min attracts men, and she catches the fascination of the Bloater, an internationally known baritone opera singer who relies more on his reputation than his charm to woo her. While Min is no doubt attracted to him (more in the sense of the potential he invites to escape the monotony of her work and the silent burden of an invisible husband) she still can’t go all the way with her new fling because she knows that the connection she feels for him is really quite weak:
The hard core of the trouble with the Bloater is that most of the time he’s not real to me. To someone else he may personify reality. I think he must have booked into too many not quite first-class hotels and this has simply become his milieu. And then he must have climbed on to too many platforms; and men get this infection, this “platformitis,” much more easily than women. The men who are absolutely like oneself are the dangerous ones. (44)
Min is head over heels for what the Bloater represents (prestige, culture, wealth), but not for the actual man himself, primarily because despite his outward appearances, he seems to be rather void of substance she can relate to (as she says later in the novel when they are at a party and the Bloater comes around to pull out her chair, “These superb good manners are strictly for public consumption; in private he wouldn’t even tie the shoelace of a woman’s shoe or hand her the sugar for her tea” (112-113). Min, at least initially, seeks out that intimacy with the Bloater, but never commits sexually, and the idea of giving oneself over to another person astounds her; how can anyone stay with someone forever and not get bored?
In contrast to Min, Min’s friend Jenny finds herself giving in to her suitor, and a change happens quite prominently when Jenny realizes she can get indeed be happy if she allows herself to not resist her urges:
“Is like fresh, hot water. And the awful thing is, Min, once you’re hooked on one mouth, you can’t beat all the others. You look at them and you think: ‘No, wrong shape, not intelligent enough.’”
“You don’t think you’ll get bored with the same mouth kissing you in the same way, night in, night out?”
Jenny shakes her head violently, and groans forth:
“That’s what I used to think! This one, I used to think, accompanied by a moustache, will be more interesting than that one, which is too etched-in—you know what they say, a kiss without a moustache is like a boiled egg without salt.” (82)
Min must have felt a hint of this passion when she first got married. Part of her wants the consistency of the same mouth, of knowing that she can be attracted to someone far beyond the initial excitement that is felt when one is beginning a relationship. But when faced with such scenarios, Min turns her back on anything that resembles perfection; she wants the chase, the drama, the unattainability of the man of her dreams, all of which she gets not with the Bloater, but with Billy, a colleague and musicologist who is her witty and fun-seeking equivalent.
Bill is smooth, quick on his feet, and able to hold his own with Min. Even though Min might find fault with Billy’s “big, fat, obtuse male fingers,” she can overlook that small detail in favor of the “naturalness about him,” or the fact that they can have a conversation about “anything young, haphazard and amusing” (88-89). But Billy is a unicorn, one that will always be out of reach, despite Min’s desires to physically and emotionally give herself over to him. He is too much like Min that it scares her to think that they will actually be good for each other and she will in turn come to despise that love he has for her:
His verbal boldness astounds me; but is he saying phrases he’s accustomed to? They don’t seem to have the necessary raw edges, and there’s absolutely no clumsiness in the way he brings them out. And then, his sophistication has almost exactly the same vein of naïveté in it that mind has. Has he caught it from me? Or have I already caught it from him?
Meanwhile we talk about everything under the sun.
But the eternal question in my mind is the familiar one: if we make love to one another, which one of us will love more? Am I going to be trapped by extreme skill? And if, alternately, I am not trapped, shall I despise? (130)
There are no doubt people in this world who sabotage what good fortune comes their way, simply because they cannot handle the pressure of being in a state that makes them happy. Min doesn’t quite reach that level of self-sabotage, but she does know the extent to which her feelings will go, and if she understands enough about herself to realize that she will come to resent someone later down the road, then pausing from proceeding any further is just the antidote to such a condition. Although Min and Billy decide to go away together (or at least talk as if it will one day be a reality), Min knows she will not be fully committed to Billy just yet, and it will be a slow process that makes her a convert to true love. As their exchange below confirms:
“Oh. I quite want to be in your power. But you don’t want me to love you full-out, surely? You wouldn’t ask that of your greatest enemy.”
“Well, you can just love me a little to begin with. Until you get more used to it.”
If there is any truth to the saying that we are our own greatest enemy, then Min speaks a truth we should not deny and which we—as readers and individuals who have, will, or do desire love or a feeling akin to it—should applaud her for not caving into sentiments she doesn’t feel.
Tonks’ strength might be in her witty dialogue and the emotional range she covers within 135 pages, but her ability to place you in a scene with such vivid textures compliments the vibrancy of her characters, as shown in Min’s description of Hampstead Heath:
…there’s an avenue leading up to Hampstead Heath which really is French. Whitish. Plane trees with patches on the trunks come straight out of the tarmac walk (that’s blue and humped) and join twenty feet aloft—the same height as the stained glass windows in Gerona cathedral. You get your daylight stained green or amber but always with rose in it, due to the flush that lies over London on a good September afternoon. All of those plate-glass windows down there behind you throw up a pink sky from three o’clock. (87)
London is often thought of as a city consumed by fog, rain, and unforgiving winters, but Tonks has turned this London on its head and painted one with details that match Min’s sentiments and the way she views life. She may see the Bloater as arrogant and full of himself, but during a night out at the opera she can’t keep her eyes away from his “purple silk handkerchief,” his “glossy and crispy curling” hair, or how controlled his “hugeness” really is (101). Tonks bring to life the smallest of details, but at the forefront of the novel the relationships between Min and her suitors drive the narrative to the point of hilarity, tragedy, and contemplation. Min might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but like Tonks herself, we must admire how proudly she doesn’t succumb to what others expect of her. She makes her own decisions without the risk of losing what she knows she is and who she wants to be. Unfortunately, the twentieth century is becoming a distant memory and there are many great writers and works that are fading from the public mind. After reading The Bloater, however, it’s evident that Rosemary Tonks will not suffer such a fate.
Esteban Rodríguez was raised in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas/Mexico border. Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019), Crash Course (Saddle Road Press, 2019), In Bloom (SFASU Press, 2020), (Dis)placement (Skull + Wind Press, 2020), and The Valley (Sundress Publications, 2021). He is a graduate of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s MFA program. His work has appeared in Thrush Poetry Journal, Malasaña, Boulevard, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and TriQuarterly.
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Rodríguez worked as a barista and a writing tutor before becoming a high school teacher. Currently, he is the interviews editor at the EcoTheo Review, an assistant poetry reviewer at AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor at Heavy Feather Review. You can find him on Twitter at @estebanjrod11.