January 20, 2011

Adam Mars-Jones: Cedilla

Posted in Mars-Jones Adam at 8:00 am by John Self

Adam Mars-Jones’ last novel Pilcrow was one of the curiosities of 2008. I was impressed by the writing but befuddled by the overall conceit – a book of fictional minutiae which was seemingly endless (in both senses). However it matured in my memory sufficiently that it became one of my favourite books of that year, and I began eagerly to await the sequel. Three years later, here it is.

Cedilla begins with an advantage over Pilcrow. Back then, we were in the dark. Now we know that this is a multi-part story, that John Cromer is here for the long haul. And long is the operative word: Cedilla’s 733 pages dwarf Pilcrow’s 525, and apparently with these two volumes we are only halfway through Cromer’s tale. This knowledge is important (of which more anon), but it also makes it worthwhile for me to make a rare reference to the blurb of a book. How do you get a reader not only to read 1,250 pages of tightly-written prose with not an awful lot of dialogue or ‘action’, but to look forward to the next 1,250? The answer in this case is charm: Mars-Jones starts his charm offensive on the inside flap, with a beautifully judged blurb. After a brief overture, we get a refrain of the line from the blurb of Pilcrow: “John Cromer is the weakest hero in literature – unless he’s one of the strongest.” It’s hard to overstate how much this simple reiteration pleased me, and drove me into the book with the rare feeling that the text, and not just the reading experience, had begun before I’d even reached the first page. The charm continues further down the blurb, with the very Mars-Jones observation that, “None of the reviews of Pilcrow explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars, but that was the drift of opinion.”

Charm is how John Cromer gets his way too. He needs other people’s help, being so limited in his abilities. In Pilcrow we learned how he was treated for childhood Still’s Disease in precisely the wrong way, leaving him with fused joints and unable to walk, not to mention, at four feet nine inches, “just a little taller than Edith Piaf. She was the lady on the radio who had no regrets [...], but wouldn’t she have wanted to be a tiny bit taller?” He gets his way too with pedantic attention to the symbols of language (so he writes coördination and homœopathy) and revels in medical words (“there’s nothing like a technical vocabulary for conferring the illusion of control”). John’s control over facts has to stand in place of his control over events. He is marginalised by doctors (though perhaps no more than any patient in the deferential 1960s):

Luckily my [bones] didn’t hurt. I thought they did, but I was wrong. One of Ansell’s deputies explained that since the knee joint was fully fused and had no moving parts, there could be no pain. In those days it was up to the doctor to decide whether the patient was in pain or not.

Other than occasional bursts into Technicolor life (such as the excruciating description of the pain after his hip operations), John’s wry tone is more or less consistent throughout. This presents certain challenges for a book which is already a masterpiece of contrasts in scale: epic in length, trivial in particulars, a life both exceptional and unexceptional, described in paragraphs fat on detail but rich in entertainment. To criticise it in all its extravagant tedium is almost futile: it is what it is. “Getting into the room is the scene,” said Mars-Jones in an interview on Pilcrow: John’s is “a life without shortcuts.” This slowness, this step-by-step approach are important because they reflect the character’s difficulty in the ordinary business of life. Despite his belief in his own charm, John’s determination to live a close to normal life on his own terms means others can find him “difficult to deal with. Impossible to satisfy.”

He quietly rebels against the assumption that he must sit in his Tan-Sad quietly and wait to die. His life continues to take place in a series of institutions: school, hospital, ultimately Cambridge University. However, if Pilcrow saw him largely static and subject to others’ well-meaning whims, Cedilla is an account of his struggles toward independence. “If I let the waters of home close over my head I would never be heard from again. No door would close behind me with any finality, but no new door would open ever.” He struggles to match his own desire to be a part of the world (even at the edge of it) with the restrictions society places on him.

A foul mouth isn’t ladylike, and it isn’t disabledlike either. [...] Swearing is dirty, and we’re above it. That may be the mechanism. Swearing is powerful. We’re not entitled. Perhaps the two notions converge in some way I don’t see.

Being of limited ability to make physical journeys, John embarks on spiritual travels instead. After developing form of “home-grown meditation” (“instead of the pain going away, I went away from the pain”), he proceeds to explore eastern faiths, even seeking a guru of his own, thousands of miles away. “The text changes your life not by virtue of being true but because you are ready for the transformation it announces.” For someone with John’s difficulties, becoming part of a religious tradition which regards pain as unreal is a perfectly logical response. It also provides him with a label with which to identify himself, a better one than that assigned to him by circumstances. “Special treatment was exactly what I didn’t want, not noticing that it can sometimes be the product of ordinary kindness.” When he goes to university, the pleasure of “fairytale privileges,” such as a lock on his door, bolsters his sense of independence, which comes to an affecting climax at the end of the book.

Cedilla, like Pilcrow, is often funny about John’s disability without belittling it. One comic highlight is a scene involving Astral Weeks, a Mars bar, and “the signed confession of my self-abuse.” He does his damnedest to explore his sexuality, and offers false modesty on his lack of descriptive powers: “Why should I sift through the various individuating traits to convey a vivid impression when all anyone needs to say to pick me out, apparently, is ‘John’ and then, ‘You know, John in a wheelchair.’” Nor is he wholly sympathetic, being a terrible snob, though at least self-aware about it:

We watched [ITV] ‘just to see how awful it is’, to be amazed at what lower people found entertaining. Our pleasures lay some distance from our principles, and often the things we said we liked did nothing for us.

One of the most appealing qualities of Cedilla is its verisimilitude – at times it feels as though the book should have an index – which Mars-Jones achieves by dedicated reference to unexpected but realistic details. As well as obscure but real books on homœopathy and gardening, there are comic subplots about celebrities local to John’s home town of Bourne End: John’s mother becomes practically housebound for fear of bumping into the intimidatingly clever Tom Stoppard, while Michael Aspel runs other drivers off the road like a televisual Mr Toad. (No ‘I ♥ the 1970s’ clichés here, though Dymotape does make a late appearance.) These give the invented people and events which are tied in with them almost too much reality.

In everything I have written so far, I have dealt with only a scattering of details from Cedilla. It is a mammoth volume: part of an even greater one. The whole undertaking must lie somewhere between brilliance and madness. Its length inevitably becomes part of what the book is about. It is necessary to overlook this to get the most from it, otherwise the unvarying tone and foreknowledge of no ending – just a stopping – will wreck it. The way to approach it therefore is to imagine each section to be part of a very slim book which must be savoured; as a mountaineer dividing the ascent into single steps. Indeed, as one goes smaller and smaller in scale until reading it from page to page, then line to line – imagine! – the standard of writing comes into its own. Each sentence is a small jewel of exquisite design; a tiny Crunchie bar. Sympathetic, funny, heartfelt, true. When read this way, one would be happy for the book to go on forever – which is just as well, really.

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14 Comments »

  1. Lee Monks said,

    “The way to approach it therefore is to imagine each section to be part of a very slim book which must be savoured; as a mountaineer dividing the ascent into single steps.”

    Well put. That was pretty much how I approached Pilcrow, and Cedilla is something I am glad to have awaiting me (in the future, at some point…). Mars Jones deserves to be celebrated. And he’s a great critic as well. And a show-off.

  2. My copy of Cedilla arrived about one hour after I read this review. I am very much looking forward to opening this substantial volume — not today, but sometime soon when I have the time. After Picrow, I know that this is a volume that demands attention.

    What I am looking forward to, and your review indicates I will not be disappointed, are two aspects of Mars-Jones approach:

    – he loves language and he loves playing with it. If you read with “savour”, you can be assured that in a few pages he will offer a game with language. It fits with Cromer’s experience and it offers its own rewards.

    – an important sub-text (and probably my favorite) is that he uses his deliberately confined central character to create openings to opine on the times — Hensher does this as well (ham-handed in my opinion, but that is only a personal observation), but I love this approach. Cromer is snobbish (not nearly so much as his mother) and that opens the opportunity to reflect on the age. We are seeing a number of novels now that explore the last half of the 20th century (Freedom, the new Linda Grant, and that is only a start) — Mars-Jones locates Cromer as a naif who has important thoughts about what these things might actually mean. It is a compelling device.

    Off topic somewhat, I am assuming you read this in a proof copy. My finished hardback version is challenging enough — I can’t believe reading this in a crudely-bound proof version. I will be looking for a book pillow when I undertake the work — I don’t think I would be up to a proof version.

  3. John Self said,

    In fact, Kevin, I read the book in its finished form – the copies of Pilcrow and Cedilla pictured above are mine.

    An interview with Mars-Jones appears here.

  4. An excellent and well-exampled review. Annoyingly, I see that another commentator (commenter?) has already picked on my favourite line from it, that “the way to approach it therefore is to imagine each section to be part of a very slim book which must be savoured.” The most surprising thing about the book is that whenever I picked it up, I never needed any refreshing as to where I was in it, or what had gone before. I think that’s partly to do with the splitting up of the text into sub-headed chapters or ‘riffs’. I’d be interested to learn whether Mars-Jones wrote the novel this way, or whether it was suggested editorially. Very occasionally (no examples to hand, unfortunately) I came across a chapter/riff which contained a major plot change (okay, that’s a relative term) in the middle, with no warning, and it seemed rather odd.

    It can’t be exaggerated how much fun these books are to read. (I’ve now got hold of ‘The Waters of Thirst’, after reading your review, John, to see if the same goes for that.)

    My set of notes for my own review of Pilcrow extends to over eight pages of my notebook, hardly any of which I managed to fit into the finished piece.

    A couple of dead darlings (though the darlings obviously aren’t mine):

    “The ego is a decorative feature that passes itself off as structural. It’s a pillar suspended from the roof it claims to hold up.”

    “The English dawn was like a whole orchestra tuning up, but here [in India] it was like a single vast gong struck with a stick.”

    and one that shows Mars-Jones, as he sometimes does, going too far for too small a reward:

    “Gardening For Adventure [a book] was so far up my street it had its tongue through my letterbox.” Adam, please!

    Final thought: the finished book is well made, and well it should be, because it will take quite a bashing in the reading of it…

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks Jonathan. As he mentions in the interview I linked above, Mars-Jones split the narrative into the little sub-chapters after his publishers reacted with alarm to the scale of the book.

    Your examples of ‘darlings’ brings home a point I alluded to in my review but didn’t fully articulate. It’s not uncommon to hear a review say that a book bears the author’s imprint in every sentence – when in fact that is rarely true. Here, however, the character which makes the book work is in (almost literally) every sentence: when not actually funny, it’s clever, or curious, or piquant in some way. I’ll choose a couple of sentences at random (truly at random) to see if I am overpraising:

    “There is such a marked social difference between intake and output in digestive matters.”

    “The Mars bar wasn’t going anywhere.”

    “This was a time when my personality was made up of plates of artificial maturity and babyishness which were always shearing unstably past each other.”

    Well, I think those prove the point fairly well. Even when inconsequential, the mode of expression is intriguing and pleasing. The question, I suppose, is how much pleasing one can take over 733 pages.

  6. Lee Monks said,

    I remember seeing a pile of Pilcrows in my local Fopp not three months hence the publishing date, three-quid apiece. And I did think: it’s the sheer length. Nobody wants these copious word-mountains anymore. Obviously, I bought three and passed them on, but it was a strange sight. The remainder of the pile was still there recently.

  7. John Self said,

    I can believe it, Lee. Pilcrow is one of the few books I’ve owned three copies of. I got a proof from Faber, and then I bought it in hardback because I liked the handsome heft of it. Then when I saw the paperback, with its charming back cover, I decided I had to have that too. That probably represents a significant proportion of its full-price sales.

  8. Lee Monks said,

    It’s a strange one. I suppose my take on it is summed up by: it’s such a (as you point out) lovely volume you’d think someone’d work up the curiosity to take a miniscule punt on a brand-new hardback, particularly if they had a glance through a few pages. But I swear I was the only person that even touched the pile, other than some member of staff initially hefting and dumping it before eventually putting the neglected Pilcrows out of their conspicuous misery and clearing some room for Steig Larsson or Lee Child.

  9. John, Lee: Your exchange is interesting and, after reading Pilcrow, I do look forward to Cedilla — and have to admit that I have to put some planning into the reading schedule to do that. Given how much time that I have available to read, I can only imagine the commitment that that represents for a lot of potential readers.

    I don’t think this is a book for a great number of people — I would characterize it as a novel for the kind of readers who haunt independent bookstores and, in terms of an expanding audience, those who want to become a little more serious in their reading. That means, in my projection, that the more numerous reading audience is some time down the road, not in the next few months.

    My marketing strategy would be to keep a couple of copies in place at as many stores as possible (I know smaller Waterstones stores would resent the space) and hope for “reader” momentum to build. Mars-Jones is not a book club writer (too long — every other element is in place) so sales are going to have to rely on developing word of mouth. It is interesting that there are content, stylistic and “marketing” comparisons with A Confederacy of Dunces — which does sell well to this day.

  10. It sounds very good, delightful even, but I’m reluctant to launch into two volumes of such length with the whole incomplete.

    I’ve read A Dance to the Music of Time. I’ve started on Proust and mean to continue. I’m open to this sort of mammoth endeavour. It is nice to know though that it goes somewhere. That it comes together and that the whole is worth the parts (even if the parts themselves are very good).

    It’s a bit hard to be sure of all that when it’s not finished. What if Mars-Jones introduces sexy vampires in the third volume after I’ve already read 1,250 pages? I couldn’t bear it. The risk of it turning into Twilight fanfic is too great to be borne when the commitment required is so great (I admit there’s presently no signs of it going that way, but Mars-Jones may yet surprise).

    More seriously, I’d like to know the full work is as good as these first two volumes. If it’s never finished or heads downhill that would impact my desire to read the good earlier stuff.

    Still, I’m looking forward to your reviews of the next two volumes. When you finish then I expect I’ll start.

    • Colette Jones said,

      The first two are worth reading even if the next two aren’t (though I expect they will be). Still, your reference to sexy vampires had me laughing out loud.

      • Thanks for the recommendation Colette. I’ll take a look next time I’m in a bookshop.

  11. [...] a disabled man who tells us everything in exquisite and excruciating detail. Oh. The second part, Cedilla, was released earlier this month and has been welcomed with giddy enthusiasm. While we await volume [...]

  12. Paul said,

    I’m surprised at how difficult it is to get one’s hands on these books here in the U.S. None of the usual suspects carry copies and even The Book Depository lists it as “Out Of Stock.” It sounds like I may need to give Amazon.uk a try. I wouldn’t bother except you keep making them sound so appealling, John.


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