Exhuming The Body by William Sansom




Considering William Sansom's short fiction was once widely anthologized in frighteningly titled story collections (e.g., London Tales of Terror, Ghosts in Country Houses, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, as well as several installments of The Pan Book of Horror Stories), with a novel named The Body, readers already acquainted with his better known, more diminutive, phantasmal forebears, could understandably conclude that Sansom's first novel The Body was likewise macabre.  Honest mistake, that. And perhaps also disappointing for those mystic connoisseurs of the obscure with a taste for Sansom's peculiar style of understated extravagance -- a style similar to yet not quite as distilled as that of those refined denizens of the fin de si├Ęcle, nor as baroque as the later Lovecraft crowds he was often lumped in with (peruse any of the table of contents of one of the dozens of anthologies Sansom contributed to in order to better see my point) -- who naturally approach the The Body expecting the same disquieting ambiance of his eerie short stories.  But the worms and the flesh's imminent decay, from which chilling wisps of (of what?) might soon materialize and emanate in sun dappled shadows in the woods, are absent.  Such ghastly expectations are soon dashed, reading The Body.

1959 Penguin reissue of Sansom's first novel
The Body rises out of a different ground.  It is a novel that William Sansom essentially made out of a molehill.  It is seeded in what amounts to a sandbox, rooted as it is in an immature husband's absurd overreaction to a neighbor's leering glance. The novel flourishes swiftly, like a prickly weed, from the uncommunicative cracks of this self-hating husband's heart, feasting on his doubt and festering insecurity.  Over another man staring over the wall at his attractive wife.  The Body, then, is about a marriage that may soon be buried, because of a husband's jealousy and profound paranoia.  A paranoia so profound its become perverse as the husband repeatedly "goes out of town" that he may spy on his wife and that ungodly garrulous, lascivious neighbor-paramour.  Alleged paramour.  Watching this extraordinarily double minded husband as he deviously befriends his wife's envisioned lover for pints at taverns all over town, concocting elaborate traps to prove himself a cuckold (and a cuckoo cuckold at that) in the very company of the vile offender, demonstrates exactly how pathologically overpowering and perverse the husband's paranoia has become.  He'll do just about anything to contrive some future indiscreet incidents between the pair to "prove" there's been an affair, even as he's the one orchestrating it.  Is a single unreciprocated glance, in the first place, automatic grounds for a spouse's jealousy and suspicion?  That's the molehill William Sansom turned into a novel.  A novel that may have been better executed and more believable as a long short story. Because even as I'd rate it a good but not great novel (perhaps "great" for a first novel, I won't quibble over that), it's still a novel at heart that's as shallow as a sandbox upon first inspection.  Upon introspection, however, the novel gains major mass.  One could say it embodies the depth of dunes. Holy shit, though, God forbid that such measly weaselly husks of human beings otherwise known as men indeed exist in this world who are as idiotic and insecure as the husband in The Body.   And what could possess a wife to remain true to that, anyway, to her husband's faithlessness in her faithfulness?  Are there really wives that forbearing and angelic in this world, willing to put up with such unjust and unfounded barrages of bullshit?  What are the odds that this marriage, on the verge of being embalmed, can bounce back and survive?

Yet somehow, The Body has survived, barely, since its publication in 1949, even enduring decades of being out of print; survived largely, I suspect, because of both the reputation of William Sansom's short stories and on the hard won approval of Anthony Burgess, who included The Body in his influential 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (published in 1984) and wrote, in part, about it:

"Sansom's ear, matching his eye, renders the idioms and rhythms of post-war lower-middle-class English with a frightening exactness.  The final image that emerges in the self-tortured brain of the husband is of the human body growing old and unsavoury -- the broken toenails, the rough skin, the bad breath -- and the sexual urge as a kind of insentient insanity.  It is what the sharpened eye is led to observe at last and it leads, in its turn, to a kind of resigned philosophy.  By a paradox, Sansom mines into the human spirit by staying on the surface."

The surface of my tattered 1959 Penguin Books copy of The Body has sure seen better days.  The cover, in fact, is held on by scotch tape.  Who knows for how many years it languished, in the dust and dimly lit glory, on a long crowded shelf at the late great Acres of Books in Long Beach before I salvaged it, thanks to Anthony Burgess, in 2008, just before the store closed.  The Body remained out of print until Faber and Faber reissued it in 2011.  I believe it's worth the steep price to obtain, or I'd be happy to send you my copy.

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