The Mays XXVII: Another Year of Success and Interest

Matti Thal 23 September 2019

TCS Arts Editor Matti Thal reviews a new year of ‘The Mays’ anthology: “since 1992, The Mays has published an annual selection of the best and most exciting new writing and artwork from students at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.”

Now, in its 27th year, there is some danger that The Mays anthology could lose the jollity and vigour of youth and slide into the dull repetition of working life. Exciting new ideas often run their course; in an era when publishing work and gaining attention is as dangerously easy as uploading a status, perhaps there is less need for an anthology seeking to expose fresh talent to the sharp light of critics. Yet, it is greatly encouraging to see The Mays is still in the rudest of health, attracting some of the best creatives from both universities to decorate its pages. Clearly adulthood begins at thirty.

Some of the best work this year is the visual art, occupying the glossy leaves at the heart of the tome. Amongst this, the portraits seize the passing viewer and demand further inspection. The faces that look out from the gloom in Esme Garlake’s ‘Pina’ and ‘Lyda’ are furtive and introspective. It is difficult not to see some resemblance between ‘Pina’ and Vanessa Bell’s portrayal of her sister, Virginia Woolf. We might be enjoying some allusion to the power of women to inspire one another in creative partnership: a paean to sisterhood and art. Both faces also show an intensity of emotion in the strong jaws, tight lips and dark eyes. We look upon those portholes into the soul, encased in surrounding shadow, and are left no better informed of their mysteries.

A few turns later, Catherine Macnaughton offers another (possibly self) portrait. The painting shares a palette of soft pastel colours with a Mediterranean fishing village in the evening dusk – is the Summer of youth evoked, locked into eternity by the pigment? Our sitter seems detached, if not distracted; a stare is accompanied by the beginnings of a satisfied smile. Meanwhile, the pale skin and bright hair, the healthy gothic glow of her cheeks and the purity of that white chest promote a vision of beauty that is bordering on the pre-Raphaelite.

Alongside this sits Zoë Matt-William’s superb ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman’. Its imagery is just as rich with allusion as its Joyceian title might lead us to hope for. Presenting the artist herself reclined in the bath, Matt-Williams holds a skull to her own face and peers back fixedly into the unresponsive sockets. Shakespeare’s masterful graveyard scene at the start of Hamlet act 5 is recalled:

“Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,

Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw.”

The artist faces up to the question of immortality and survival at the core of the creative instinct. How are we to overcome the finite other than to produce and leave behind for others to find? Thus, with the rawness of a hand stencil in a primeval cave, Matt-Williams has produced a work of real ambition. The bathtub too, that place of escape, where we can both hide and be purified, baptised and drowned, is a wonderful emblem. Perhaps we are to remember Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Marat, murdered and slumped over in his bathtub, or perhaps Agamemnon, felled by a woman’s deviousness and not the glinting point of a Trojan spear. This is where great men die. Yet now, that space, once reserved, is filled by a woman. But more than that, by a woman who is unafraid to face her own mortality and provide a rebuttal. The piece glows with a confidence which is emphasised by its bold, bright, block colours. Indeed, she has all the self-belief which led Joyce to dedicate his first play to his own soul; it is most certainly a portrait of an Artist.

Outstanding written pieces also abound this year. Joanna Kaye’s work, ‘After’, has to be commended. It is stark, harsh and unforgiving. Reading is uncomfortable and challenging; it is difficult not to wince. As she narrates the days, weeks, months and years following the rape of a girl by her taxi driver, she explores in parallel the different impact the event had on both lives with a mixture of honesty and pathos. However, the parallelism is her real achievement. For Kaye has innovated remarkably successfully in using the divided page to tell her tale in two neighbouring columns. The inventive use of the space awards to the reader the privilege of knowledge, like dramatic irony on stage, to allow us to contextualise both stories as they run on. Nonetheless, she closes with a triumphant declaration: “Forever after: the hunted are the // hunters now”. Maybe Kaye is seized by optimism or hope; it seems just as much a dream.

Fascinating too is the short story of Krystofer Mackie. Named ‘Bon Appétit’, it is a joyous romp in the genre of nonsense. He imagines three doctors considering a riddle in a lift about eating oneself, before one doctor retells the tale of an enormously hungry Frenchman who ate himself till nothing was left. It then closes with the doctors trapped in the lift, hungry and groaning. Well over a century since G.K. Chesterton published his playful essay “In Defence of Nonsense”, it is cheering to see that are some heirs to Lewis Carroll in an upcoming literary generation. Mackie has a sharp sense for the ridiculous, the obscene and the unpredictable. His short story is amusing, intriguing and leaves you licking your lips.

Lastly, Evan Silver’s “Murders and Murmurations” carves out a voice which is both thoughtful and learned. We enjoy following his trail of thought as it flows through various subjects and explorations like a river through a rocky landscape, or rather like a crow skipping between enticing crumbs. Silver’s work is enjoyably well-researched and insightful throughout. It is a challenge to characterise the style beyond these broad adjectives. He is journalistic without being sensationalist, academic without being dour. Like Mackie, what is so exciting is not only what we have here to read, but the collections of essays and stories such talent should produce.

Perhaps the only disappointment is the poetry. While some authors have lowered themselves to such antiquated constraints as metre, it is depressingly rare; rhyme has been entirely abandoned. Worrying too is the prevalence of lower case ‘i’s and a lax approach to punctuation. Such innovations may well have been radical between the wars, but surely by now they have ceased to be interesting or effective. Far from battling the beast of rigid Victorian versification, this is like pissing on its overgrown and forgotten grave. Young poets must see beyond these cheap markers of inventiveness.

So The Mays marches on. It was a joy to read so much of it, and infinitely encouraging to imagine what might be created in the future.