MORTAL FLESH by Gilbert Phelps


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Phelps, a teacher at Oxford -- a BBC scenarist -- and a writer in as many other genres (criticism, poetry, and now this his sixth novel) has fashioned a surprisingly tableau vivant of a life at the point of death. Primarily because of the nature of the man who now lies altogether diminished by age and illness in a hospital and the rather quixotic quality of the life which proverbially passes in review. The old man believes that ""the real seat of memory"" lies in sensuality -- thus his receptivity to light or color on a hospital wall, or the touch of a nurse's hand. Most of the book deals with his strange relationship with Trudy, met in Brazil (concurrent with a hectic, picaresque account of his attempt to rescue a Russian girl from a brothel which only lands him in jail) -- Trudy who will return to England with him -- a primly buttressed, statuesque young woman who lies like alabaster in the marriage bed they share for years until she leaves having really used him as the means of developing the voice housed in her beautiful ""bust."" Tangentially he meets the Russian gift again in London who acquires a name, Tanya, and who, when met for the third time in Portugal, she shares his life during its happiest and saddest phase -- what we might call a peak experience here almost overendowed with exaltation. Until then the physical dissolution of this life is viewed with both more vigor and humor than the occasion usually attracts -- dissolution becomes ""a kind of primitive joke"" -- and the experience is affirmative not only in terms of a life fully lived but a death well received. Phelps is a good writer with an insistent visual strength -- will it be enough to overcome a theme and a time we usually avoid?

Pub Date: April 1st, 1974
Publisher: Random House