canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Remembering Hubert Selby Jr.

by Matthew Firth

The twentieth century spawned many radical fiction writers: Burroughs, Bukowski, Fante, Trocchi, Acker, Celine, Genet, etc. (note the absence of Canadian examples). They're all dead now and Selby may have been the last of the lot. But he was also not quite of the lot - different than the aforementioned and others who also wrote fiction against the grain in the last century.

Selby's books were viewed - at the time of their publication - as a threat to the moral fibre holding society together. His first book, arguably his best and certainly the work for which he was best known - Last Exit to Brooklyn - was banned (in Italy), put on trial for being obscene (in England), and reviled (just about everywhere).

Last Exit was seen as dangerous not just to a subculture (as occasionally happens today) but to the entire culture, a phenomenon that seems nearly impossible to imagine now. But while Selby was a bad ass like some others, he was also different. He stands apart and must be seen as a tremendously significant writer because of three things: his subject matter, style and tone.

Selby wrote about the life he lived, the place where he lived and the people he knew (thugs, pimps, transvestites, prostitutes, queers, addicts, workers, etc.). He wrote about poverty, abuse, violence, want and despair. But what's critical here is that he wrote about these things not as a form of social protest, not to fulfill an agenda, but simply because this is the life he knew, these were the people he knew and he believed their stories were every bit as worthy of documentation in fiction as anybody else's. This is vital to understanding Selby. He wrote not to shock; he wrote to accurately portray a world of deep anguish that was, until that point, shut out of literature and deemed unworthy subject matter.

What's more, Selby cared about his characters and empathized with them faults and all - and those faults ran the gamut: criminal, anti-social, vile and despicable; it didn't matter, he didn't cut his characters adrift in his fiction, rather he held them close to his chest and intimately examined what made their brutal lives tick.

Selby was also a stylist. Anyone cracking one of his books for the first time might be put off by that style: Selby basically said fuck it when it came to proper grammar and diction. His prose was stripped down, blunt, bare. He once said: "I knew the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer." This is pure DIY ethic, ballsy conviction and courage. Selby's formal education ended at age fifteen. Barely educated, chronically sick, addicted to morphine drugs for a period of time, and always working at various banal and life-sucking occupations, he was an unlikely candidate for literary success. His succinct and corner-cutting style suggests he had to get it down in a hurry, perhaps out of fear of death, lack of time because of work, or because the demon of drug addiction was competing for his attention. Whatever the reason, his bare-knuckled style is gripping once you get into Selby's groove and perfectly suited to his subject matter.

His tone: simply put, no one did rage quite like Selby - whether it was mundane domestic rage, violent hateful rage, naked lustful rage; it was central to his work and a great way to articulate the darkly human despair, anguish and abuse that was the fulcrum of his fiction.

What also stands out about Selby was his commitment to his craft. Over a forty-year literary career he published seven books. His health and personal life intervened in his literary life and hampered his productivity from time to time but more than this I think Selby only published his best work and sometimes truly struggled with writing, determined to get it right, determined to make it meaningful. Another reason to praise him, to lament his passing.

Last words to the man:

Being an artist doesn't take much, just everything you got. Which means, of course, that as the process is giving you life, it is also bringing you closer to death. But it's no big deal. They are one in the same and cannot be avoided or denied. So when I totally embrace this process, this life/death, and abandon myself to it, I transcend all this meaningless gibberish and hang out with the gods. It seems to me that that is worth the price of admission.

Matthew Firth is the editor of Front&Centre and the proprietor of Black Bile Press:






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