July 14, 2011
David Miller: Today
Here was a book I approached with almost sadistic curiosity. Its author, you see, is the literary agent for some of my favourite writers: Keith Ridgway, Magnus Mills, Cynthia Ozick, John Burnside, Tim Parks… To think that one man was responsible, one way or another, for my being able to read Animals, The Puttermesser Papers, All Quiet on the Orient Express, and others, almost made me giddy enough to need a sit down. So, we know he has a good eye, but can the plucky underdog make it on his own?
Today is an epic in miniature, with its 160 pages of breathable prose containing thirty-nine characters. They are detailed in a witty dramatis personae (“Scallywag (‘Scally’), 77 (or perhaps 84), a family pet (canine)”) which also discloses the centre of the book: “JC, 66, a seaman, a writer, a husband and father, a dying man, a corpse.” The story is set on three days (three todays): his last day of life; the day of his death; and the day of his burial.
It would be possible – just – to read the first part of the book without knowing who JC is: clearly he is important, a father figure, the star around which all the characters orbit. These comprise his family, his secretary, household staff, and – among others – the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. Who is this important man? Can any good news come from so many people gathered together as a sick man lies upstairs? One family friend suspects not, when a telegram arrives: “the world – come to pay them a visit.” Only when their ostensible host dies the next morning – “he had fallen from his chair, headfirst” – is he named as Joseph Conrad. In death he becomes fixed, recorded, a reflection of a artist’s permanent legacy (“escaped into legend,” as Salter wrote of Gaudí). “The dead live longer than you think,” his secretary Lily recalls.
By making Conrad the absent centre of the book, Miller can focus on the many surrounding characters. The book is heavily populated, but he knows his characters so well that he can pare them back to a minimum but still keep them distinct in the reader’s mind. Prominent among them are Conrad’s sons, Borys and John, whose sibling friction is one of the highlights of the book. John, the younger of the two brothers, feels his first intimations of mortality: the funeral is “the beginning of some storm that would not end.” At the precocious age of eighteen, he contemplates his own funeral. Other characters are outlined with equal deftness. When we first see Richard Curle, family friend, he is sitting in Conrad’s study while the man lies sick – dying – upstairs. “Forty-eight panes in all; he had counted them: sixteen, sixteen, sixteen, making forty-eight. And then again, one by one, making forty-eight.” I don’t think it is just my recognition of such displacement activity in myself that makes me think this gesture tells us a great deal about Curle before he has even spoken. Miller can also drop the just-so description with apparent effortlessness, as when “puddles seemed to simmer like the surface of a stockpot” (the perfect last word elevating that simile into poetry, as well as efficiently giving us an insight into the character who makes the observation).
Such a subtle and beautiful thing as this novel will not stand my tramping over it with too many plot spoilers, though plot is not the prime mover anyway. As well as being a satisfying story and multiple character study, Today is – as we might expect from an authors’ agent – a very knowing literary work. It is a miniature of the English country house novel, a fitting form for Conrad who “wasn’t an Englishman [but] wanted to be.” Its subject matter and length suggest The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Conrad in the preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ wrote that the writer succeeds when he provides “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” The phrase is explicitly cited in Today, and aptly so. The book acknowledges too the limitations of fiction and the very language of which it is made, as Conrad’s secretary Lilian recalls his frustrations as a writer: words were “the great enemies of reality”. The good writer, of course, transmutes these frustrations into a seamless experience for the reader, the threatening storms of composition becoming the thrilling swells of literary achievement. While I hope for more riches from Miller the agent for many years to come, I hope that his talented clients ease off the accelerator from time to time, to give him the space to give us more.