Friday, August 5, 2011

Standing apart while the parade marches on... (Books - Today by David Miller)

David Miller's Today (another recommendation of John Self's) is set around the death of the author Joseph Conrad, but it is less about his death per se than about the inner life of those affected by it, most notably his younger son, John, and also his typist, Lilian. Although the novel is sharply focused on this one event and brief in its duration, Miller's writing has an old fashioned thoroughness.
Lilian Hallowes was an unhurried, fastidious woman in her mid-fifties who was used to doing what she had been told to do. For this reason amongst others, she was held in high regard. Few noticed her; she was shrouded from most of them by a shawl of gossip, which told all of them nothing. She was happy not to be known.
The novel also offers a contrasting modernist quality - mixing event with inner life in a seamless flow of narrative that evocative of Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room or To The Lighthouse. It was the quality of the novel I found most involving and satisfying.

John is the book's focus because he is changed most by JC's death. Everyone is touched in their way, but he is isolated in a spotlight, his thoughts become arias, and he is ennobled, somehow, moving from childhood to adulthood through his experience of this event.
After the dinner plates had been cleared, Curle said he was going up to see Jessie and Joan followed him upstairs, to check on the baby. Borys stood and walked from the table to the door that led to the small orchard. The sky was bruised with darkening blue, more rain on the way. He glanced behind him and John looked up.

'Jackilo,' he said, quietly, 'come outside with me.'

For the last time in his life John did as his brother told him and stood, following him...
Miller's all-knowing pronouncements match oddly, but effectively with a knack he has for capturing the incongruity of moments that one knows are life-changing as one is in them.
... The garden was fresh, lush, basking in the after-dawn. It smelled of green. He looked down the orchard to the yew hedge, closing the door behind him, his palm still on the handle the grass all fo a sudden shockingly there between his toes. In the garden he saw runner beans and their odd flowers beside them, like starfish dried in the sun, only thinner. My father is to be buried this afternoon.
John stood still by the kitchen table for a while, and then stood, mindlessly tidying the rest of their breakfast things for Audrey. When he opened the door to the store supboard to replace the butter, he looked inside and walked towards the shelves. He touched a jar and looked at the wooden shelf. There, in his father's hand, he saw a label stating Redcurrant Jelly, '22 and in that instant John felt his eyes begin to water again, an involuntary thing, and his whole body seemed as though it had been sliced, and shredded, cut down.
These passages have a very experiential, I would go as far as to say, autobiographical, feel to them. It is certainly John's point of view with whom Miller is most intimate and these are the segments of this novel that feel most real. Least fussed over. That being said, loss is a nearly universal experience and Miller's displays his talent in this ability to so aptly catch its current in a way that resonates. The entire action of the novel, if there is action to be had, could be summed up in this paragraph.
John was there in the world, and the world was continuing, the whole parade was going on: but he was not part of it - none of them were part of it. They all remained inept, in a bubble of respect.
If that doesn't describe mourning, I don't know what does.

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