Books of the century

Elizabeth Young on the courage and daring of Hubert Selby

Mention Hubert Selby (now minus the "Junior") to any reasonably well-read person and they will say, "Yes - Last Exit to Brooklyn. Brilliant. Excellent. A classic!" They remember the film, they may even recall the UK prosecution of the book, in 1967, under the Obscene Publications Act, during which the judge demanded an all-male jury (women must not be exposed to this). The jury found the book so impenetrable as to be unreadable. Apparently bored to distraction, they voted "guilty", presumably out of pique. The conviction was reversed on appeal.

Yet mention any of Selby's other great books to your literary friends and they will look blank. They may just about have heard of The Room (1972). As for The Demon (1976) and Requiem for a Dream (1978), the verdict is "No Sale". Their pilot lights are out. Despite his relative obscurity, this dazzling quartet of novels - four works of genius - was to prove more prescient, more prophetically powerful and more influential over subsequent generations of writers than any other work of the time, including that of William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon.

Last Exit was the forerunner of every hip, street-wise US novel of later decades. The Room was the harbinger of all the violence, obscenity and squalor that was to erupt with such tremendous force in so-called "transgressive" work in literature and other media during the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, it draws an early map of the theories of contradiction in fiction between "reality" and "fantasy" that came to obsess so many contemporary authors. It was also the only book in my life ever to make me physically sick (at breakfast, too). I was impressed.

The Demon has as its main character and anti-hero the prototype fictional yuppie, Harry White. An ambitious accountant who murderously flips out under sexual pressure, he presages Bret Easton Ellis's homicidal yuppie in the celebrated American Psycho. Requiem for a Dream is, arguably, the best novel about heroin (and other addictions) ever written. Better even than Trainspotting? Well, very possibly. Indeed, Irvine Welsh owes much - probably without knowing - to Selby. And the foul facial pimple that so preoccupies the occupant of The Room is a close, viscid relative of the tapeworm in Welsh's recent Filth. They both contain the poison.

Influence, however insidious, pertinent and widespread, is not quite enough. I submit Hubert Selby as my author of the century for other reasons - for his impeccable literary technique and his dazzling, innovative mastery of style and dialogue. It took Selby six years to write Last Exit to Brooklyn; he has a horror of all the lazy cliches in fiction and treats adverbs like viruses. "What bugs me in fiction," he once said, "[is]'Harry said' and 'Tommy said'. Who can read a book like that?"

So Selby, through endless, agonising application, wrote almost entire books or novellas without attributing or describing speech. And yet, reading a piece like "The Queen is Dead" in Last Exit - the story of poor, tragic Georgette, "the hip queer"- one is always fully aware, through Selby's use of rhythm and emphasis, exactly who is speaking, even though the characters share the same background, ethnicity, demotic, inclinations and manner of speech. This applies to the entire quartet, and stands as a hugely impressive feat of literary control.

Selby tends to eschew physical description, too. He is interested in the interior life of the individual personality. "We don't live and die on the outside," he says. His main task was "to squash my ego . . . the ego has no place [in literature] . . . I have no right as an artist to interpose myself between the people in the book and the reader. They should be able to communicate directly. They should not have to go through a middleman."

Selby, a self-styled "frustrated preacher", is not interested in realism or naturalism, but in transmitting moral essences, moral choices. His characters fail "not because they are immoral . . . but because they lack control . . . all these people are looking for outside sources to do something for them. Not one of them wants to know what he can do for somebody else." These characters may sometimes be archetypes, but never, in Selby's delicate, caring hands, are they stereotypes.

There is a strong strain of spiritualism, even religiosity, in Selby's work. Most of his epigraphs are biblical. Consider Requiem for a Dream, a more melodramatic and vengeful novel than the others. It concerns blue-collar bum Harry; his Jewish mother Ada, who is addicted to television soaps and prescription diet pills; bebopping black Tyrone; and Marion, Harry's girlfriend, a wincingly accurate portrait of the educated, artistic, wealthy, middle-class, young, female addict (a portrait unique in fiction). Harry and Tyrone start dealing heroin to support their habits and those of their girlfriends; they obsessively dream, too, of becoming wealthy drugs criminals. Scuffling by on ten-dollar deals, they fantasise about buying "a pound of pure" - and then cutting it. But Selby's epigraph reads, "The only pound of pure [is] Faith In a Loving God".

Selby has suffered appalling ill-health throughout his life, and never earned a living wage from his books. Since cleaning up through, I think, AA and NA, he has produced much less powerful work. This raises a disturbing question: was it only by indulging his capacity for extremity that he was able to produce great work?

I once spent time with Selby, when he toured the UK with Henry Rollins, and found that he had all the humility of the great artist. As Gilbert Sorrentino writes: "He's a pure artist . . . interested in the art of literature and the perfection of art." The discerning Marion Boyars holds the UK rights in his work. It's time, surely, for this towering quartet of novels to be republished, and assume their rightful place in the postwar literary canon.

Elizabeth Young is compiling a book of her essays for Serpent's Tail

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.