Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Simmons Papers: A Borgesian Jest? - Roger Dobson

If your preference in literature is to be pleased, puzzled, perplexed and presented with paradoxes, we recommend the novella The Simmons Papers (1995) by Philipp Blom, author of To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting (2002). The Simmons Papers is, states Faber and Faber’s blue advertising wrapper-band, ‘The Only Novel about the Letter P’, and this hardly seems likely to be a matter of dispute. The book relates the tragi-comic story of P.E.H. Simmons (1901-89), appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford University in 1935. Simmons holds this distinguished post for only three months before resigning because of anti-German feeling: his mother came from Leipzig. After his resignation Simmons remains in Oxford until his death, but never again holds a university post. He writes philosophical treatises that make him a revered figure in European and American universities, though he is such a crusty conservative figure that his status means little to him

The main body of The Simmons Papers is devoted to Simmons’ strange manuscript, an elusive work given several wildly different interpretations by various academics. In the manuscript Simmons describes his work on what he calls ‘the Definitive Dictionary’, which sounds very much like the Complete OED, in a building that resembles the Oxford University Press building in Walton Street. Dr Javis, the editor-in-chief of the Dictionary project, has allocated the letter P as Simmons’ domain, a letter Simmons is fascinated by and proud of. The letter, of course, is his own first initial. ‘P as a letter is a vast mystery,’ he muses. Attentive readers will note that each section of the manuscript begins with P: ‘Personally . . .’, ‘Probably . . . ’, ‘Practically . . . ’, etc. Simmons’ immediate predecessor in the P section had a great fondness for plants, and those that are cited begin with P: a pine, primroses, a palm, poppies.

As the editor (i.e. Philipp Blom) explains in one of the introductory biographical sections: ‘There has been fierce discussion as to whether this account of a piece of extraordinary scholarship is fictional, or is an autobiographical representation of Simmons’ work in the years 1976-9.’ One scholar, Huxley Mandelbrodt (his deconstructionalist statements, which are largely pretentious gibberish, are quoted in footnotes throughout the manuscript), claims it is ‘a subversive un-writing of the gender issues in European literature’. ‘Other positions, suggesting that the work is a coded account of masonic rituals, a translation from ancient Hetitian hymns, or the manuscript of the long-lost novel The Messiah by Bruno Schulz, which Simmons acquired on a trip to the Ukraine in August 1967, and intended to publish under his own name, have failed to find a wide echo within the community of literary scholars.’ It is left open by the editor whether the ‘manuscript published here is a work of art, the emanation of a surprisingly fruitful fantasy, a work of reminiscences, the document of a mental disarray and decay of a fine mind’.

It’s hinted that the work may indeed be fiction, for nowhere in the introductory matter, where Simmons’ life and university career are described, is it stated that he works as a lexicographer. ‘The remaining forty years of his life [after his resignation as Waynflete Professor] were spent in relative obscurity, unknown to any but a small and constant number of tutees and old friends.’ It is revealed that depression dogged the philosopher all his life. ‘At times the “black days”, as he referred to them in his diaries, became so overwhelming that Simmons had to be taken into institutional care for weeks on end. At such times he lived in complete isolation, but for medical visits he received and a caretaker who brought him the daily papers.’ In the manuscript Simmons describes how, in his office at the publishing house, the inter-office messenger, Malakh, brings him books, journals and his letters. Is Malakh the institution’s caretaker? Could it be that all Simmons’ life in the Dictionary office is an illusion? In one episode Simmons describes how in a fit of madness he attacks Malakh and has to be physically restrained. Lending credence to the idea that Simmons is confined to a madhouse is that his two predecessors in P section were likewise eccentric, if not insane. His immediate forebear writes a book entitled Insights into the Lucidity of the Occult and the Mysterium of the Divine Letter. The author, called only ‘the Doctor’ in the manuscript, explains in this book that it was his earthly mission to rebuild the temple of Solomon: ‘In an architectural drawing in his own hand, the temple appeared to have the shape of a gigantic P.’ Relieved of his duties by Dr Javis, the Doctor, who believes himself to be the reincarnation of the Boddhisatva, hangs himself.

Readers may find themselves delighted by Blom’s book, while they rack their brains to find the key to the text- if there is a key. It seems as though it might be an allegory, but an allegory of what precisely? Or is it merely a satire on intellectual pursuits, suggesting that too much knowledge can drive one mad? Or perhaps a giant legpull? Every element of the book can thus be subjected to analysis to determine whether it has deeper significance. For example, why has Simmons never met Dr Javis? ‘Javis is indeed so far removed from the sphere of ordinary office work and editing that I myself have not yet had the privilege of meeting him, or of being summoned to his office, although this is undoubtedly bound to happen at some point in the future.’ Dr Javis has a personal secretary, Mr Lloyd, but Simmons wonders if Lloyd is fictitious: ‘one of those myths which arise during such a complex undertaking as the editing of the Definitive Dictionary over a long time when communication is poor.’

The author has fun satirizing the long ‘Communications of the Great Academy’, which Javis sets up to regulate the editing of the Dictionary. These are issue in daily supplements and the ‘rulings encompass every possibility, provide for all contingencies. From the consumption of sandwiches during working hours to the format of the writing paper, the standardized way of using paper clips’, etc. Is this a satirical thrust at OUP communiqués sent to staff? Apparently Philipp Blom, who was born in Hamburg in 1970, studied in Vienna and Oxford and then worked in publishing for a time . . .

Simmons lunches at Braun’s Hof (he’s allowed out then?). Was this Brown’s Hotel which used to exist in St Giles (now an Oxfam Bookshop) or the nearby trendy Brown’s restaurant in the Woodstock Road? Your co-editor’s landlady inherited one of the stair carpets from Brown’s Hotel: a most depressingly worn item. Midway through the text Simmons falls in love, with a woman he can’t see properly since he is short-sighted. Looking from his window across the courtyard he sees a co-worker in a floral dress, ‘a lady of radiant beauty, the fairest among women and a lily among thorns’. She seems to be working in M section, which pleases the old scholar. ‘M is the nasal relative of P . . . They are connected through B, the sonor, or voiced stop.' Note the author’s name: Philipp Blom.

The book is full of in-jokes like this. Simmons solemnly cites a monograph by Pierre Menard. Menard had no earthly existence but sprang from the fertile mind of Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, The Simmons Papers can be viewed as an elaborate Borgesian jest. Simmons works on the third floor, Room B 304. The editor comments in a footnote: ‘This location has not been decoded by literary scholars. To his puzzlement, however, the editor of these pages has realized that it corresponds with his own room in his college.’ There are allusions to The Waste Land, Jacob’s ladder (‘ . . . “And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night”, in a classical but little-read text’), etc. All in all, a mind-boggling, very entertaining puzzle that people will enjoy racking their brains over. If anyone who reads it knows what it is about, please tell us.

(This is one of a series of previously unpublished pieces by the late Roger Dobson originally intended for The Lost Club Journal.)


    Two admirers of Blom appearing at once!