We open every book with the assumption that the writer wishes it to be read. Readers occupy a default position of generosity, bestowing the gift of our attention on the page before us. At most, we might concede that a novel or a poem was written for inward pleasures only, without the need or anticipation of an audience. It is very rare to open a book and to feel—to know—that the writer did not want us to read it at all, and, in fact, tried to prevent our reading it, and that, in reading the book, we are resurrecting a self that the writer wished, without hesitation or mercy, to kill.
This is the case with Rosemary Tonks’s “The Bloater,” published originally in 1968 and reissued in 2022 by New Directions, eight years after the author’s death in 2014. Without this intervention, Tonks might have succeeded in wiping “The Bloater” out, along with five other novels and two books of strange and special poetry, scorching her own literary earth. Before New Directions’ reissue and Bloodaxe Books’ posthumous collection of her poetry, getting hold of any of her work was prohibitively expensive; one novel could cost thousands of dollars.
Tonks was born in 1928. By the age of forty, she had accomplished what many strive for: opportunities to publish her work and critical respect for it. Her Baudelaire-inflected poems were admired by Cyril Connolly and A. Alvarez, and her boisterous semi-autobiographical novels had some commercial success. Philip Larkin included her in his 1973 anthology “The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.” She collaborated with Delia Derbyshire, the iconic early electronic musician who helped create the “Doctor Who” theme, and Alexander Trocchi, the novelist and famed junkie, on cutting-edge “sound poems.” At the parties that she hosted at her home in Hampstead, the bohemian literati of Swinging London were spellbound by her easy, unforgiving wit. Tonks was principled and ambitious about her writing, pushing a continental decadence into the oddly shaped crannies of bleak British humor. Until an unexpected conversion to fundamentalist Christianity compelled her to disavow every word.
After a series of harrowing crises in the nineteen-seventies, culminating in temporary blindness, she disappeared from public life, in 1980, leaving London for the small seaside town of Bournemouth, where she was known as Mrs. Lightband; she made anonymous appearances in the city to pass out Bibles at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. She felt a calling to protect the public from the sinfulness of her own writing by burning her manuscripts, actively preventing republication in her lifetime, and destroying evidence of her career. There are tales of her systematically checking out her own books from libraries across England in order to burn them in her back garden. This is a level of self-annihilation that can be categorized as transcendent or suicidal, or a perfect cocktail of both, depending on who you ask.
Of course, most writers hate their own writing, either in flickers or a sustained glare, but they are also entranced by it, wary yet astonished. Many writers stop writing entirely, but part of the Faustian deal of publishing is that what you created lasts—beyond your feelings toward it, beyond your commitment to creating more of it, beyond your being alive to read it. Rimbaud, whom Tonks adored, famously quit poetry by twenty-one, after wringing out his wunderkind brutality, but silence is not necessarily the same as self-censorship. Tonks renounced literature as others do intoxicants, a clean break with an evangelical bent. She became allergic to all books, not only her own, refusing to read anything but the Bible. The connection between substances and language is one that she made while she was still using, so to speak; “Start drinking!” her poem “The Desert Wind Élite” commands. “Choked-up joy splashes over / From this poem and you’re crammed, stuffed to the brim, at dusk / With hell’s casual and jam-green happiness!!”
In retrospect, it’s easy to claim the dingy desolation that she describes at the heart of bohemia as some seedling of religious shame, but that would be irresponsible. Undeniably, the speakers of her poems (and, in a cheerier way, her novels) are drenched by “the champagne sleet / Of living,” of walking home from a stranger’s bedroom in the chill of dawn. “I have been young too long,” she writes, in her poem “Bedouin of the London Evening,” “and in a dressing-gown / My private modern life has gone to waste.” Her writing documents a life that prioritizes “grandeur, depth, and crust,” and those qualities are not stumbled upon, fished from the gutters, but hard-won: “I insist on vegetating here / In motheaten grandeur. Haven’t I plotted / Like a madman to get here? Well then.” Poetry, Tonks proposes, is found in the soapy bodies of resented lovers, the ashen walls of hotel hallways, the sharp rustle of February rain outside unwashed windows. Sadness is a given, but shame? Shame we reflect back upon these scenes through the mirror of her later faith, for the ease of narrative. While I can’t begrudge someone their higher power of choice, it’s heartbreaking to encounter something so wonderful that became such a terrible burden to its maker. Maybe that is what I find the most compelling about the story of Tonks: being able to articulate her troubles with such slanted beauty, a beauty that many writers would triple their troubles for, did nothing to stave off a need for self-punishment and the possibility of apotheotic forgiveness.
In “The Bloater,” the protagonist, Min, is grappling with a plight immemorial, a quandary so intimate that it might be one of the most universal questions that humanity shares: whom should she have sex with, given the baroque logistics of seduction and, more important, the shockingly limited options? As she exclaims, “Why do the only men I know carry wet umbrellas and say ‘Umm?’ I am being starved alive.” Her husband, George, the walking personification of incidental, is not on the table. Marriage, in Min’s subcultural nineteen-sixties, is merely an architectural situation, which one lives with neutrally, familiarly, as one might a doorknob. Its practical purpose is self-evident. It neither imprisons nor romances; it has zero relationship to morality, fantasy, obligation, or idealization. Sex, on the other hand, inflicts all of the above. For Min, if marriage is a doorknob, an affair is a door that opens onto the world.
The primary candidate for her affair is, at first, the eponymous Bloater, a looming, accomplished opera singer who can make every room feel like a bedroom, and whom Min associates with “red fur coats, soup, catarrh, and grating dustbins.” A bloater is a kind of cold-smoked fully intact herring, once popular in England, named for the swelling of its body during preparation. Puffed up from within, they are open-mouthed, iridescent; van Gogh painted multiple still-lifes of them in a demoralizing, reflective pile. The Bloater pursues Min with an almost delusional confidence, interpreting all of her insults as adorable idiosyncrasies. Min responds to the Bloater’s sustained flirtation with showy disgust—performed for him, her friends, and her own inner monologue—but she keeps inviting him back. Terrified of being left out of her historical moment, Min confronts the erotic complexity of being a woman suddenly freed by the sexual revolution, freed right into a new arrangement of social pressures. Yet the novel isn’t really about Min and the Bloater but, rather, the slapstick confusion between wanting someone, wanting to be wanted by them, and wanting to want in general, to know yourself capable of the focus that longing demands. It is about flirtation as a method of self-organization, and a crush as a method of self-torture. All of “The Bloater,” however—every single sentence—is funny.
Min’s cruelties and inconsistencies stem from Tonks’s surprisingly forward-thinking analysis of the sexual politics of the era: yes, straight women have full, active sexualities, and they want to have sex freely, just as much as men (if not more), but they are also constantly aware of what a power disadvantage they have, how every seduction comes with traps, social, emotional, and physical. In “The Bloater,” that push and pull, of desire and the reality of its consequences, creates an environment where women are always on the sexual back foot, so to speak—understandably defensive, cynical, anxious, and, at worst, rivalrous. Early in the novel, Min and her co-worker Jenny, who bears a striking resemblance to the aforementioned Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, are eating cheese sandwiches on break and discussing the terrible dangers of a guitarist Jenny likes, who returned after the end of a party to help Jenny clean (uh-huh) and, instead, lay down on the floor, across her foot, “a sure sign of a late developer.” But just as she started to move away, “he leant over slowly and kissed with the most horrible, exquisite, stunning skill—” Jenny extolls. “Born of nights and nights and nights of helping people clear up after parties,” Min responds.
As Jenny continues to describe this slightly open-mouthed kiss with increasing fervor—“He knows everything,” everything being the existence of the clitoris, one assumes (one hopes)—Min spirals. “Stop! I’m agitated. She’s gone too far, and is forcing me to live her life. Where are my coat, my ideas, my name? . . . She makes me feel like I’ve got to justify myself; catch the first plane to New York, or something equally stupid. . . . Oh! I know exactly what she means; and yet, what on earth does she mean?” Min, in a personal chaos of arousal by proxy and urgent insecurity, does what so many have done, before and since: she embarrasses her friend by implying that Jenny is being too candid about her own lust. Accusations of sluttiness, the perennial hazard of women’s honesty, peek their heads around a cheese sandwich. “Basically I’ve double-crossed her emotionally, but she’ll forgive me because my motive is pure jealousy. Here we go, purring together.” Tonks pins down the fascination and bewilderment of hearing another woman describing the kind of sex that you’ve never had; the awful impulse to get your bearings by claiming your inexperience as a power position, reducing yourself to a genre of virtue that you don’t even believe in; and the way, after all that, you can walk away even closer friends, absolved by an unspoken camaraderie. For Jenny and Min, the wrangling of inherited antagonisms is transparent, absurd, and shared. Women talk over the rumblings of their own internalized misogyny, laughing louder and louder.
All the characters in “The Bloater” are trying to ward off a singular agonizing fate: falling in love. For Tonks, love is its own thing, separate from both sex and its inverse, marriage, a dreaded vulnerability that could strike at any moment if one enjoys life a little too much. Min observes, “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. . . . The men who are absolutely like oneself are the dangerous ones.” It’s obvious from early on in the novel that the Bloater is simply the rhapsodic foil to the man who is Min’s own personification of reality: her friend Billy, who accepts her emotional blockades with a quiet optimism. When it seems as if Billy might kiss her, Min almost falls down, thinking,