During a monitored phone call with my literary agent, it was suggested to me that I look for inspiration in the lives of other authors who seized upon the opportunity to write while serving custodial sentences. I would’ve taken my usual notes throughout the conversation but was unlucky enough to have misplaced my stubby, prison-issued pencil, and this resulted in me forgetting many of the titles she referenced. Thankfully, it was a recorded call, per the warden’s policy, which is to say I availed myself of the transcript and to my pleasant surprise, the recommended works of literature, or at least most of them, were waiting for me on the shelves of the prison library.
Below, in no particular order, are the titles referenced by my agent:
The Travels of Marco Polo, published circa 1300, was co-authored by a romance writer named Rustichello da Pisa, who probably got called Rusty for short. After having the bad fortune of being thrown in jail, Rusty then had the good fortune of being placed in the same cell as Marco. I’m guessing the sudden preponderance of downtime inside a confined space was rather difficult for the great explorer, so he assuaged himself by recounting his adventures through Asia to his cellmate and scribe, thereby galvanizing a literary collaboration that deepened the geographical and cultural awareness of European readers. Naturally, I can’t help wondering whether the jailhouse tradition of being gay for the stay was observed, and if so, were there other collaborations of a more physical sort?
Conversations with Myself, by Nelson Mandela, is a memoir comprised of diary entries, notes, and letters written under the cruel auspice of a twenty-seven-year sentence handed down to the future South African leader for his role in conspiring to overthrow that country’s apartheid state. Mandela’s struggle to lift his people out of their disenfranchised hellscape is candidly portrayed, profoundly moving, and in my unworthy opinion will forever serve as one of history’s best real-life examples of the hero’s journey.
Pisan Cantos, by expat American, Ezra Pound, is a lengthy poem, partially completed while the disgraced poet was interned by the United States Army in the Italian city of Pisa for collaborating with Mussolini’s fascist regime. Endorsing fascism is a good way to put yourself on the wrong side of history and that’s exactly what Pound did, however, he was not mentally sound at the time. In fact, the magistrate ruled him unfit for trial and deported him back to Washington D.C. where he spent twelve years wandering the halls of a psychiatric hospital.
Letters from Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr., is a well-argued defence of peaceful protest in the form of an open letter written while the civil rights firebrand was jailed for organizing lunch counter sit-ins and marches on Birmingham’s City Hall. True to form, the rhetoric of the prose is by turns breathtakingly eloquent, unflinchingly direct, and as such remains essential reading for all aspiring activists.
Miguel Cervantes, the seventeenth century writer and military commander, did many stints in the clink over the span of his life, one of which provided enough repose for the completion of the prologue to his seminal work, Don Quixote. The popular idiom, tilting at windmills, flowed forth from the nib of Cervantes’s quill in 1605, and four hundred years later, at the end of my trial, it was uttered by the pitiless judge who lowered the gavel on my conviction.
Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory, is the first cradle to grave account of King Arthur’s fabled existence. Malory compiled the tome from pre-existing French and English sources while serving a deuce (1468-1470) in London’s Newgate penitentiary for rape and theft. The fact that he died soon after his release suggests the writing process may have taken a physical toll, or perhaps he knew Le Morte d’Arthur would secure his legacy, effectively immortalizing him. Some men want nothing more than to make their mark on the world, and with that achieved many of them struggle to find reason for hanging around. Did he ‘do the Dutch’, as we say in prison? I think a nihilistic streak was indeed at play. I mean, why else would a distinguished former member of parliament choose to become a career criminal?
Sir Walter Raleigh was in the Tower of London, mouldering through thirteen years of penal servitude for conspiring against James I when he penned, The History of the World Volume 1. Plans for subsequent volumes were lopped off along with his head in 1618, and upon seeing the blade of the executioner’s axe, Raleigh remarked: “This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries.”
De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde, is an essay on spirituality and faith, composed while he was imprisoned in Reading jail on charges of gross indecency. Dedicated to his boyfriend, ‘Bosie’ (Lord Alfred Douglas), the essay’s first half recounts the gay love affairs preceding his sensational trial and ultimate conviction. The second half focuses on his spiritual development over the course of his incarceration i.e. his identification with Jesus Christ. Tragically, the poor conditions inside the jail left Wilde in a constant state of illness. After being released, he lived in exile, in Rouen, France, under an assumed name but was never able to regain his health, and three years later, he died, impoverished and alone.
There were three other pertinent books, two of which were recommended by my agent; however, they had been omitted from the prison library’s catalogue on account of their inappropriate content, and they are as follows:
Justine, by the Marquis de Sade, is yet another work of literature written under the yoke of imprisonment. De Sade, an aristocrat of far-reaching notoriety, was a self-professed libertine who habitually engaged in depravity; thus he spent a total of thirty-two years locked up in various penal institutions for a litany of crimes including blasphemy, sodomy, rape, and torture. He was also a prolific writer, and in 1787, during one of many stints in the Bastille, he completed Justine: a story that follows the eponymous protagonist on her ill-fated journey of self-discovery. From the age of twelve to twenty-six, the fair maiden falls prey to a string of rogues who subject her to all manner of sexual crimes. By recounting the cruelty suffered at the hands of these captors, her trauma, and its role in her own criminal behaviour, for which she’s being punished, becomes poignantly clear. In the context of de Sade’s notoriety, one can’t help but wonder how much of Justine was actual fiction.
Our Lady of Flowers, by Jean Genet, graphically details the life of a drag queen in the robust homosexual underworld of 1930s-40s Paris. Genet, who spent his early years as a homeless male prostitute and petty criminal, wrote the novel while serving time in prison for theft.
Mein Kampf, was, of course, the title not mentioned by my agent, who, like my lawyer, is an Ashkenazi Jew. To call it a work of literature would be unethical and entirely absurd. However, it does hold a certain degree of relevance as an historical document published at the outset of what could be called the darkest period in humanity’s troubled existence. Technically, it’s the autobiography of a thirty-six-year-old frustrated painter who received the Iron Cross First Class medal while serving as an infantryman in the Great War. Despite the distinguished decoration, his fellow soldiers had reason to call him a “rear area pig” because he was always devising ways to avoid being placed on the front lines. Nonetheless, he thought himself a hero in high polish jackboots, returning home from battle with a burning desire to right the wrongs of the world by exterminating everyone who practised the religion of those who twice rejected his application to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.