Tuesday 8 March 2011

'what remained'

by David Miller

Having  recently reviewed a book written by someone who has worked as a critic I now move on to the debut novel from a literary agent. Now I cannot even begin to imagine my acting agent deciding to give the boards a tread but the position of literary agent is slightly different, many of them playing a hugely active role in shaping the writing of their clients in preparation for approaches to publishers. So there's nothing terribly odd about it really but I'd love to know how many other examples there are of other agent/writers. Miller's debut is petite in many ways; a small, almost square book of just 160 pages with the action taking place on three separate days, but size is just one of the ways in which he shows restraint, an approach that helps him create a debut novel that has no spare flesh on it at all, where restraint makes those flashes of insight all the more dazzling and writing that is so precise you feel you are in the hands of a far more experienced novelist.

Miller has taken his cue from a real event and the people that were a part of it, a gathering of the friends and family of Joseph Conrad on the August bank holiday weekend, 1924 at his home in Canterbury (anyone who might choose Conrad for their specialist subject may have alarm bells ringing at that date and you'd be right). Before the novel begins we come across the dramatis personae, usually the reserve of the playwright, a cast list that extends to a staggering 39 characters. Many of these will just be walk-ons and one is the family dog so you needn't worry about a book leaden with enough characters to sink a Russian epic, there are just a few that we can concern ourselves with here. At the top of the list is Lillian Hallowes, a 'typewriter', who has been Conrad's secretary for many years. She is not part of the family unit but is invited by Conrad's son John who is celebrating his birthday that weekend. The official invitation has come from Conrad's invalid wife, Jessie, who has just been released from a nursing home. These three will be most directly affected by the event that alters the course of the weekend - Conrad's death (bonus point for you if you were already there).

Each of these three has their own, intensely personal response to the death, for whilst it is just the one man who has died he was many different kinds of man to the people that he knew. As his wife, Jessie has to put on an almost professional demeanour when dealing with the business of death and it is only much later when she has a quiet moment alone that she can reflect and react honestly to her loss.
Jessie was aware she was lividly frozen in the chair, the only parts of her body that seemed to move were her eyes and fingers. She came upon the cardboard packet she had found on the window sill in his room. She opened it. One cigarette left. She looked at it. She had never smoked. She had known the smell of a married man, the whiff of whiskey, the scent of tobacco, the sour odour of both. Her husband rarely brushed his teeth. When he kissed her, he had a rotten taste: the kiss lasted, not always in a pleasant fashion. She rolled this, his last cigarette in her stubby fingers and put its tip to her lips and she sucked it in, unlit. Her cheeks were, immediately, lined with tears. She breathed in deeply and then removed the cigarette, small flakes of leaf speckling her lips. She spat them out babyishly, making the most polite raspberry. He will not come back.
The crowded cast-list is perfect for providing the hustle and bustle of a busy and opulent household, the kind of setting that we have been enjoying once again on television with series like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. It is the perfect background noise to show the shocked state of John Conrad as he moves around the house, his birthday celebrations obliterated by grief and his own senses suffering the same confusion that must come to the boxer who has been caught square on the jaw.
There was nothing, no sound, simply numbness. John watched small things happen around him - a fly ambling on the carpet, Scally greedily snuffling and grunting at the gap at the bottom of the closed bedroom door, the steam from his mother's teacup - and swiftly realized he would feel like this for a while: things would happen to him before he could happen to things again.
In that restrained atmosphere it is a while before he can properly give rein to his emotions, the moment eventually coming courtesy of something innocuous, the label on a jar of redcurrant jelly written in his father's hand and the first tears of a long weekend. John's brother Borys has driven down to the house with his wife and infant child and the two brothers can compare their very different views on the father they shared. To a greater or lesser extent we all return to a childlike state when we spend time with our siblings, unable to avoid whatever pecking order existed back then and Borys laments what he never had, the thing he saw given so freely to John - a proper father.

Borys took one last gulp from the glass on the kitchen table and said solemnly, 'I was never a boy,' through the ghost of a milk moustache.

On her journey down to Canterbury Lillian remembers something that someone once said, 'The dead live longer than you think'. Conrad haunts the novel through his absence, the impact coming from others contemplation of what life will be like without him. For Lillian there is the obvious professional vacuum that will need to be filled now that her employment no longer exists but she it transpires is not just grieving for him. Not only has she lost her own brother to suicide but her isolation makes it possible for her to mourn those members of her family still alive so that along with the tears she sheds for her brother Warren there are more for 'her mother, and her dead, unknowing father and her other brother, knowing once more what it is to lose love, weeping at her only-ness on the world.'

Now I realise that I am making this sound about as much fun as attending, well...a funeral but just like those TV series I mentioned earlier and films like Gosford Park there is humour to be found in even this restrained and respectful atmosphere, a humour that often undercuts proceedings. Sometimes it is something small like the description of the chauffeur giving John 'an embrace of almost Bolshevik proportion' and sometimes it comes after slightly more. The slightly bumbling Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, George Bell, holds forth at one point about a day when fog obscured not just the Bell Harry tower of the cathedral but everything around him.
'And it rattled me - having something I know so well, know as part of my landscape - it simply wasn't there. It made me think absence is sometimes so much more present than whatever we are looking at now.' he said. 'Absence so much more present,' he coughed, 'so much more present than presence.'
The man is practising material for a sermon, Lillian suddenly thought...
To be able to drop lines like that in is the mark of a man in control of his theme. This novel is full of moments that illustrate beautifully the way in which we rush to fill the void left by the loss of someone, whether that be by conversation, memory or even objects that we can hold in our hand. The control shown by many of the principal characters and by Miller himself make these moments all the more devastating when they come and show how, whether it is a surprise or not, we can never prepare ourselves for how death will make us feel.


Anonymous,  13 March 2011 at 13:50  

This sounds like it is excellent, it also seems to be a book that you can definitely judge on its marvellous cover... if one is being really materialistic.

William Rycroft 13 March 2011 at 20:24  

It's a lovely cover isn't it, classy like the interior. I wholeheartedly recommend it Simon.

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