With the appearance of a new edition of “A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel” by Tom Phillips, one of the most beguiling works in any artistic medium will finally have come to an end. And “A Humument” is a work in more media than most – a masterpiece of, at the very least, painting, drawing, collage and (after a fashion) writing. If it is writing, it is writing of a very unusual kind, for while this book of almost 400 pages contains a text of remarkable invention and virtuosity, not a word of it was composed by the author himself.
One Saturday morning in 1966, Phillips was poking around in a house-clearance sale in Peckham Rye with the artist R.B. Kitaj. He said that he would take the first book he found priced at threepence (this was five years before Britain’s currency went decimal) as the basis for a new project. The book he found was “A Human Document”, a forgotten novel by W.H. Mallock, published in 1892. Phillips had already begun experimenting, under the influence of William Burroughs, with using cut-up techniques on copies of the Spectator, but now he had a whole book to play with. He set about “treating” the novel: obscuring most of the text on each page by painting, drawing and cross-hatching over it while picking out a handful of words and joining them in new combinations. Sometimes the words Phillips selected were already adjacent in Mallock’s text; at other times they were widely distributed across the page and were linked up with delicate white lines, forming typographical rivers.
The title itself was an act of trimming: when Phillips folded a page, the text in the running header contracted from “A Human Document” to “A Humument” – “an earthy word with echoes of humanity and monument as well as a sense of something hewn, or exhumed”. The text also gave him a cast of characters, who appear intermittently throughout the book. Chief among them is Bill Toge, who appears every time the words “together” and “altogether” appeared in the original, and his love interest Irma.
Toge’s story provides a romantic and erotic thread running through the book, often infused with a very English kind of humour – half-surreal, half-juvenile, and told with a straight face. The text on page 20 reads: “a bag lady his muse/And sex, with a capital f his search/look at that photograph of animal sex./he himself rated success in flesh to include dogs, rain, rope, and also a certain condition of Asiatic elation”. The rest of the page is dominated by paintings of what looks like discarded satsuma peel, suggesting that Toge’s search for exotic flesh might not be going all that well.
The text also comments on the nature of art. It has “quotations” from modernist writers – Ezra Pound’s “make it new”; E.M. Forster’s “only connect”; Samuel Beckett’s “fail better” – even though these didn’t exist when Mallock wrote his book (the Beckett quotation didn’t even exist when Phillips started out in 1966). The opening words of page one strike a Virgilian note – “I sing a book of the art that was” – and the closing words of the penultimate page a Joycean one – “And I said yes – yes, I will yes”. In between there unfolds an epic of bawdiness, indirection, verbal and visual digressions, and sheer pleasure in language. As a 50-year project, “A Humument” has the detail, obsessiveness and repetition of outsider art, and yet it is the work of a Royal Academician who is knowing about the art world (“The critics make me ill, ducky”).
“A Humument” has now gone through six editions. Each time, Phillips went back to Mallock’s original and produced a wholly new “treatment” of a certain number of pages in it, replacing the version he had made previously. Devotees refer to the successive editions like the philosophical notebooks of Wittgenstein: the Green Book, the Yellow Book, the Blue Book, the Red Book. This “final edition”, a beautifully produced hardback from Thames and Hudson, is an elegant turquoise. It is a very different object from the first edition, published in 1973 by Tetrad Press in a run of 100 copies.
None of the pages from that first edition survives into the final edition, and many have been revised more than once. The new book contains 92 new pages, meaning that more than a quarter of the book has been remade since the fifth edition of 2012. The new pages show how open Phillips has been to historical contingencies. Page 95 seems to spring from this Brexit-shadowed summer: “The whole place is full of the air of trouble…a spent Europe laden with serious history”. Elsewhere we get visual references to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the 50p piece Phillips designed to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Dr Johnson’s dictionary, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, a charming appearance by Rupert Bear, what seems to be a photograph of the artist’s mother and, on the final page, a photograph of the gravestone of W.H. Mallock – “the sole and only begetter of this volume”.
It is hard to believe that this final edition really is the end. The project has had offshoots in sculptural objects, an iPhone app and an opera. It seems unlikely that Phillips’s inexhaustible talents have done all they can with it. After all, as page seven says, “changes made the book continue”.