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Julian Mitchell: The Undiscovered Country

This is a schizophrenic novel as you will ever find. The first part tells how the narrator, Julian Mitchell, whose life massively parallels our author’s, gets to know and befriend one Charles Humphries, son of rich parents, dilettante, fashionably bisexual, genius, writer and all-round schizophrenic. Julian and Charles do not stay formally in touch but seem to come across one another in the strangest and most improbable places and circumstances. Indeed, part of the purpose of the novel seems to be to give a glimpse to key cultural events of the post-war era – from Beats to the Swinging Sixties. Julian is fascinated by Charles and his somewhat unconventional lifestyle which includes his ambivalent relationship with his family (he seems happy to use their riches but, at the same time, seems to frequently reject them), his travels, where he seems to eager to merge into the local lifestyle, whether it is in Japan, Venice, California, or as a labourer in England. Charles is, however, doomed but when he finally dies – suicide? accident? – Julian inherits his writings, in particular his work The New Satyricon. Up to here, we are definitely in Brideshead territory.

The rest of the novel is the text of this work with some (often faux naif) glosses by Julian. It is not, at least as far as the plot is concerned, based on Petronius’ Satyricon. The similarities are that Charles’ work is bawdy à la Rabelais and also fragmented, though Petronius’ work is fragmented only because much of it is missing while Charles’ work is deliberately fragmented. What the work is is the picaresque wanderings of a hermaphrodite called Henry in a strange country. Henry gets involved in an organization called Encolpius (Encolpius is the hero and narrator of Petronius’ Satyricon) which is devoted solely to sex for its own sake. He out-fucks them (there is no other way to describe it) but is soon caught in a variety of adventures, switching from a predominantly male persona to a female one which, of course, gives him a somewhat different experience and perspective. The whole culminates in an Alice in Wonderland-like trial. (It could also be said to be a Kafka-like trial but Julian the commentator deliberately rejects this.) The whole thing ends in a Beckett-like black hole. Indeed, as can be seen, the story is very derivative and its fragmented nature does not make for easy reading (which, of course, is the point) as Mitchell is clearly pointing to what he sees is a future direction of fiction, at least from the late Sixties, Burroughs perspective. I think he has been proved to be more or less wrong but it is an interesting view, nonetheless.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Constable