OBITUARY:Terry Southern

Jack Adrian
Friday 10 November 1995 00:02 GMT

"The important thing in writing is . . . to astonish," the satirical novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern remarked in 1964, in a Life magazine interview, around the time his notorious girl-can't-help-it frolic Candy was first published, unexpurgated in the United States. "Not shock - shock is a worn-out word - but astonish."

Even so, shock is what he meant, and outrage is what he did, invariably, not only infuriating the prodnoses but his own side, too, or at any rate causing those of a more liberal persuasion on occasion to bite their lips thoughtfully at what appeared a somewhat over-excessive use of hard-core sexual imagery in his work, to the point where satire seemed virtually indistinguishable from straight commercial pornography.

It was easy enough to reconcile the two 20 or 30 years ago, of course, post-Chatterley, with all kinds of moral walls tumbling down; rather more difficult today. Looked at dispassionately, Candy (1958) was indeed straight commercial porn, given that it was written expressly for Maurice Girodias' "Travellers' Companion" series, a straight commercial porn line, because Southern was broke (the classic situation for creating pornography). On the other hand, real pornography isn't a bit funny, and Southern most definitely was. More, he was a writer with a strong sense of the absurd and a large dislike, hatred even, of pomposity, elitism, greed, politicians, shrinks, all those in authority. Targeting (and in most cases hitting) these as well as hammering out preposterous filth - and getting paid for it - seemed like a good job well done.

Candy still reads well today (despite the odd reference to Fifties icons such as espresso coffee, Eisenstein movies, Lee Konitz). Indeed, it still reads hilariously, with its scenes of manic bizarrerie - the catastrophe in the men's room of the Riviera Bar, the point where Uncle Jack is brained with the brass bedpan - shrewdly interspersed with calmer, though still disgracefully funny, interludes; like the scene with the two monstrous quacks, Drs Krankeit and Dunlap (and read what you may into these two names), in which Dunlap's hand, in close proximity to Candy's delectable lower regions, takes on a life all its own: in much the same way that, six years later, Dr Strangelove's gloved prosthetic spasms into the Hitler salute at the slightest provocation, or keeps trying to throttle its sinister owner.

The whole novel, of course, is simply a rollicking burlesque of Voltaire's Candide, crossed with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (Candy's full name is Candy Christian), which exuberantly takes the reader on a journey from the Racine (and is there some kind of obscure hint or textual clue to be gnawed over there?), Wisconsin, breakfast table to Lhasa, Tibet, via a whacked-out cult HQ in Mohawk, Minnesota, featuring innocence assailed on all sides by, and sometimes succumbing helplessly to, ravening lust, in a text notable also for its author's exhausting synonymisation of the female pudenda (honeypot, lambpot, cream-box, fur-pie, thermal pudding, etc, etc, etc, pretty well ad infinitum). Not unnaturally, the book was banned in Britain and the United States; enormously unnaturally, the authorities tried to ban it in France (home of the dirty book since the reign of Louis XVI), although less, one suspects, on account of its bawdiness, indecency or debauching qualities than its author's sheer brass neck in swiping from Voltaire.

Though born in Texas, Terry Southern possessed largely European sensibilities, formed during and after the Second World War (during which he served for two years in the US Army), and largely 18th- century. He would have been perfectly at home scribbling scurrilous pamphlets in some noisome garret in the stews off the Strand, along with Defoe, Cleland, "the abominable Curll" and other literary rapscallions. As it was, he spent four years at the Sorbonne networking, his friends and influence including George Plimpton, Mavis Gallant, Christopher Logue, James Baldwin, Dick Seaver and the Glaswegian Alex Trocchi (with both of whom Southern later co-edited the excellent avant-garde anthology Writers in Revolt), as well as other writers and critics who were in the process of ditching the post-Jamesian "Modern Novel" in favour of something a good deal more anarchic and hard-boiled.

Southern wrote Candy for money and for laughs. His collaborator Mason Hoffenberg may not have added hugely to the final manuscript (some say he worked for Agence Presse Francaise, some that he churned out smut for Girodias under absurd pseudonyms, some that he didn't exist at all). An acknowledged, if mildly bizarre, influence was the British experimental novelist "Henry Green" (the industrialist Henry Yorke), who persuaded the publisher Andre Deutsch to take Southern's Flash and Filigree (1958) before any American house. This extraordinary short novel starts promisingly with Dr Frederick Eichner, "the world's foremost dermatologist" and a man obsessed with automobiles, stunning a patient with an onyx paperweight, and thereafter takes on all the heightened reality of a dream, or a nightmare - although a nightmare that is at times hilariously funny.

The 25,000-word novella The Magic Christian (1959) is even less conventional, being simply a series of outlandish practical jokes on the grand scale (a fortune in dollar bills dumped in a vast vat of burning manure, urine and fresh cow's blood; a ravenous black panther let loose at a rare-breeds dog show in Madison Square Garden, New York) set up by the richest, and most cynical, man on earth.

The Magic Christian caught the eye of the film director Stanley Kubrick, who hired Southern as screenwriter for a film based on Two Hours To Doom (aka Red Alert), a so-so thriller about a rogue US general who starts the Third World War, by the British novelist Peter George (a depressive who later, convinced that the world would indeed end in a nuclear holocaust, shot himself). Faced with the mind-boggling enormity of mega-death, Southern and Kubrick turned workaday melodrama into brilliant burlesque, creating, in Dr Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), one of the great and most influential post-war movie satires.

After the success of Dr Strangelove (the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), Southern eschewed low- paying novel-writing for the high-paying, and high-flying, world of the movies, writing or co-writing some of the 1960s' most characteristic films: The Cincinnati Kid (1965, starring Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson), The Loved One (1965, co-written with Christopher Isherwood), Barbarella (1968, virtually "Candy-in-Space", with the young Jane Fonda) and Easy Rider (1969, the screenplay another Oscar nomination, co-written with Peter Fonda and the film's director Dennis Hopper).

In 1970 Southern returned to the novel with the outrageous Blue Movie, a book prompted not only by the wish of its author to publish in the mainstream a work of pure pornography (there is absolutely no artistic merit whatsoever in the scene between Arabella and Boris by the Liechtenstein lakeside), but also by Southern's very real need for revenge against the madnesses and madmen of Hollywood which he had endured for nearly a decade. Blue Movie (which Pauline Kael thought "the best Hollywood novel in a long time") is a wonderful and full-blooded spoof on the international film- world, its ludicrous pretensions, its grandiose treacheries, full of giant-size comic characters and King-Kong-size bad taste (heinous as it may be to admit this, it is still, I fear, very difficult indeed not to guffaw helplessly at the mortuary scene).

When met at parties in London in the early 1970s Southern proved to be no live-wire; rather morose, in fact, and his intake of outre chemicals by no means as riotous as one had been led to believe. He did, however, cheer up if wholehearted enthusiasm was expressed for the rather less well-known parts of his oeuvre, such as "The Blood of a Wig", published in Evergreen Review (hip lit mag of the time), which told of an extraordinary narcotics experience involving shooting up the blood of a Chinese schizophrenic, currently wrapped in a strait-jacket in Bellvue Hospital, New York, set against a general Manhattan publishing background and featuring, towards the piece's end, a rather good pun on "necrophilia".

Terry Southern was a man of the Sixties, a decade of licence, Lenny Bruce (a friend), "Little Annie Fanny", and the dynamiting of whited sepulchres. He never regained the position he had in that decade and spent most of the past quarter-century writing screenplays that were never screened, and teaching screen-writing at Columbia University, where he died. He was never one to wield satire's scalpel delicately; that was part of his charm. During his great days he would set about his target full-bloodedly, slashing and shearing through the cant and the humbug often with a ferocity that bordered on the manic. He could be very funny indeed. Gore Vidal (a writer not noted for fulsome enthusiasm for any of his fellow scribes) went so far as to describe him as "the most profoundly witty writer of our generation".

Jack Adrian

Terry Southern, writer: born Alvarado, Texas 1 May 1924; died New York City 30 October 1995.

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