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Vector for Seven, Josephine Saxton

August 29, 2011

Vector for Seven, Josephine Saxton (1970)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Vector for Seven, Josephine Saxton’s second novel, follows a pattern begun with her first, The Hieros Gamos of Sam and An Smith (1969), in having an increasing group of people wander through a dreamlike landscape seemingly detached in time and space from our world. The setting however does resemble our world more closely than previously.

The wonderful opening lines introduce us to Mrs Amelia Mortimer (for whom the novel is subtitled – “The Weltanschaung of Mrs Amelia Mortimer and Friends”) and Sophia Smith, two very different women brought together to await departure on holiday from a remote aerodrome. Their respective transports have deposited them there in isolation, and there appears to be nobody else around.

“There are undoubtedly much worse things that can happen to a person than to be splattered with the shite of swifts,” said Sophia Smith in a rather unsympathetic voice. She was addressing her remark to Mrs. Mortimer, whose first name she did not know because they had only just met.

Mrs. Mortimer was deeply shocked by the use of the word “shite,” but she showed it no way whatsoever. She continued to scrub with the blunt end of a nail-file at the offensive bit of ordure that clung to her hat, which she held in her kid-gloved left hand. The mat felt was marked permanently, there was little doubt of it. She looked upward at the source of the offence, and observed birds flying to and fro from a bunch of nests in the eaves of the wooden building outside which they now sat. It was the only place to sit down, or they would have been sitting elsewhere.

That deadpan tone, formally stylised prose and the dry humour within made Josephine Saxton stand out in the New Wave where much of her otherwise unclassifiable fictions found a home. From 2011, it may seem at first to be dated, but bear with her, as Saxton who admits to being a devotee of Jung, takes her characters on a mysterious voyage through what she called in later books the Collective Unconsciousness.

Mrs Mortimer and Sophia Smith are gradually joined by others, including their driver, who proceeds through a serious of instructions left for him, and the semi-mute, alien-like boychild Septimus. Seven people, of assorted ages, classes and attitudes, set off on what they have seen advertised as a Super Tour. Where to? It is never made clear, to reader or characters, as they travel up and down newly built, near empty motorways, sleep and awake in new countries, in strange unpopulated places. Beyond the seven there are very few other people even viewed at a distance, the cafe waitress, the stewardess, momentary interactions outside of the group.

At some point they find themselves becalmed at sea listening to Messiaen, later a submarine, a plane and a hotel, but at all points effectively in a white room. Existence beyond the characters is blank. Yet they have memories. They have emotions, and needs. Saxton throughout her works excels at depiction of gourmet experiences, and Vector for Seven is no exception. Indeed the food scenes are the principal moments of realism in this otherwise abstract novel. Even the long multi-viewpoint sex scenes take on a rarified intellectual aspect as Martha ponders her orgasm as she has it yet Saxton’s prose is paced to the rhythm of the lovers maintaining an eroticism belied by technicalities. It should be noted that this, very English in many ways, novel has gay and interracial sex, and the older women in particular are seen to embrace it perhaps more than the younger for all their respective airs and pretensions.

For me Josephine Saxton is a clever, witty, even hilarious writer, though her detached style may not be to everyone’s taste. Re-reading her work I am convinced the style is deliberate, it is too thoughtful to be accidental, yet it frequently breaks so many so-called rules. Viewpoints switch mid-sentence, mid paragraph. Scenes fade into each other, and there is an artificiality to everything that will irritate the ‘show don’t tell’ believers. Sentences rumble on through multiple clauses to hundreds of words. Nevertheless, Vector for Seven works as an exploration of the Unconscious, and the prose style effectively conveys the juxtapositions, transitions and abstractions of our minds.

Suddenly, not fifty yards away from the boat, there was an iceberg floating in the ocean, forty feet in height perhaps, and thirty across, shaped exactly like an iceberg, and apparently travelling at a great rate towards their vessel. Amelia came alive again and flung the steering wheel around to no avail, for not only did the lack of speed in the boat make her rapid manoeuvre ineffectual, but she turned it the wrong way, besides which error, of no importance as it happened, the iceberg changed its course and headed directly for the little boat, which was helpless to avoid the impact, which came, not with the crash and crack of ice but with a soft yet mighty thud like the drunken body of a fat man at a party in Leeds one night near Christmas, pushed out of bed by a young student called Amelia, a virgin until her marriage at the age of twenty-five.

Ultimately, as in other Saxton novels, the seven individuals become a group and share experiences. They judge and are judged but they learn and are taught. In its early 60s upper middle class viewpoints Vector for Seven is very definitely of its time, but Saxton also cuts through this. Snobbery is mocked, pretensions are dashed, and barriers (race, gender, class, age, sexuality) breakdown into a collective.

It is an area Saxton returned to in a more feminist focussed way with the Jane Saint novellas, but Vector for Seven remains her best work after Queen Of The States.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

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