Thursday, January 05, 2012

All the Rooms of Uncle's Head: Fact and Fiction

My review of All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head by Tony Williams (Nine Arches press, 2011, £6) is up at Sphinx issue 19, together with reviews of the same pamphlet by Jon Stone and Nikolai Duffy. Oddly, the same Nikolai Duffy review, slightly extended, also appears at Stride magazine.

One issue that emerges from the reviews is whether the background to the poems is fact or fiction. The description on the pamphlet’s back cover says:
The maker of these strange pieces was an inmate of an asylum somewhere in Central Europe in the first decades of the 20th century. His fevered versions of the sonnet form were painted on to ceramic tiles, since smashed, and now pieced together.

Sounds like historical fact – if that’s as far as you read. But I was convinced from the outset that this was a fiction – even if a fiction interweaved with certain historical facts. My reasons are as follows:

1. The pamphlet’s cover clearly asserts Tony Williams as sole author.

2. Nowhere does the pamphlet ever suggest itself to be a work of translation. The poems are © Tony Williams and no one else.

3. The pamphlet’s introduction says that in 1986, the building occupied by German psychiatrist, Hans Prinzhorn, was stripped for renovation, and it was during this that the ceramic poem-tiles were discovered. Prinzhorn, his landmark book on ‘outsider art’, and his accommodation in Munich, are all historically verifiable, but a Google search for ‘Prinzhorn ceramic tiles 1986’ or any other similar search directs the searcher only to Tony Williams’s pamphlet.

4. There is no reference to those tiles anywhere, or to their previous publication in their original language. That means Tony must have worked with the original tiles, which no one else had ever thought to publish either within a book or online. Surely that’s impossible, given their obvious literary quality.

5. The back cover description above continues with, “Inspired by the great artists celebrated by Hans Prinzhorn in his famous work The Artistry of the Mentally Ill, Tony Williams has explored what it might mean to create literature under such conditions of stress.” This seals it for me: those phrases, “Tony Williams has explored...” and “inspired by...”. In other words, these are original poems by Williams, inspired by his research into ‘outsider art’.

I am a fan of literary hoaxes. Ern Malley springs to mind, and I know of a few other brilliantly conceived hoaxes. But I don’t think Tony Williams is hoaxing anyone here. All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head is a fiction, not a hoax. The poems are obviously by Tony Williams but are written in a convincing persona and, like any strong work of fiction, it draws the reader into a spell so that he/she enters a world that feels absolutely real. One thing that makes this pamphlet so convincing is how well Williams evokes the style of central European poetry of the early 20th century and yet still manages to make it sound something like Tony Williams. I’d definitely recommend you get yourself a copy, particularly if you like poems that offer new discoveries with every read.

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